Red or Blue Ensign?

Red or Blue. Which Flag Should we Raise?

The Australian Red Ensign resulted from the Commonwealth Government’s 1901 Federal Flag Design Competition which required two entries: a flag for official Commonwealth Government use and another for the merchant navy. The winning design was based on the traditional British Red Ensign and featured the Southern Cross and Commonwealth Star.

Red Ensign




The Australian red ensign is a predominantly red version of the Australian National Flag, using the same shade of red as the Cross of Saint George which is part of the Union Jack present in the canton.

Following federation in 1901, the topic of national colours for British ships registered in Australian ports was addressed by the Navigation Act, which provided that such ships (i.e., civilian ships) should wear the Australian Red Ensign. Technically, private non-registered vessels were liable to a substantial fine if they did not fly the British Red Ensign as they were not formally covered by the Navigation Act.

However, an Admiralty Warrant was issued on 5 December 1938 which authorised such non-registered vessels to fly the Australian Red Ensign, too. Australia enacted fully domestic shipping legislation in 1981. The Shipping Registration Act of 1981 reaffirmed that the Australian Red Ensign was the proper “colours” for Australian registered ships and that smaller (i.e., less than 30 tons) pleasure and fishing craft could fly either the Australian Red Ensign or the Australian National Flag but not both at the same time.

From 1901 to 1924 the red ensign was used as the national flag by state and local governments. In the decades following federation the red ensign was also the preeminent flag in use by private citizens on land. This was largely due to the Commonwealth government and flag suppliers restricting sales of the blue ensign to the general public.

Blue Ensign




By traditional British understanding, the blue ensign was reserved for official government use although the red ensign was nevertheless still in military circulation until after the 1953 legislation, meaning the 1st and 2nd Australian Imperial Forces served under both the blue and red versions. State and local governments, private organisations and individuals were expected to use the red ensign.

Flag-Sydney-MailIn the 1920s there was debate over whether the blue ensign was reserved for Commonwealth buildings only, culminating in a 1924 agreement that the Union Flag should take precedence as the National Flag and that state and local governments were henceforth able to use the blue ensign.

In 1940 the Victorian government passed legislation allowing schools to purchase blue ensigns. The following year prime minister Robert Menzies issued a media release recommending that the blue ensign be flown at schools, government buildings and by private citizens and continued use of the red ensign by  merchant ships, providing it was done so respectfully.

Despite executive branch proclamations as to the respective roles of the two red, white and blue ensigns there remained confusion until the Flags Act 1953 declared the blue ensign to be the Australia national flag and the Australian red ensign to be the flag of the mercantile marine. It has been claimed that this choice was made on the basis that the predominately red version carried too many communist overtones for the government of the day to legislate it as the chief national symbol although no cabinet documents yet released to the public including the more detailed minutes have ever been adduced in support of this theory.

Rules for flying Flags

The Flags Act 1953 sets rules for flying flags. (NOTE: The Act does not mention flying any other flags, such as the Aboriginal or TI flags on the same level as the blue Australian flag)

  1.  Other Flags: The Governor‑General may, by Proclamation, appoint such other flags and ensigns of Australia as he or she thinks fit.
  2. Warrants to use Flags: The Governor‑General may, by warrant, authorize a person, body or authority to use a flag or ensign referred to in, or appointed under, this Act, either without defacement or defaced in the manner specified in the warrant.
  3. Rules as to use of Flags: The Governor-General may make, and cause to be published, rules for the guidance of persons in connexion with the flying or use of flags or ensigns referred to in, or appointed under, this Act.
  4. Flying of Union Jack: This Act does not affect the right or privilege of a person to fly the Union Jack.



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