Last modified: 2022-09-23 by ian macdonald
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From 1901 to 1954 the Australian Red Ensign was generally referred to as 'the Merchant Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia'. Like the Australian National Flag, it was based on the five winning entrants in the 1901 Federal Flag Competition, and 3 September 1901 is the 'birthday' for both flags. Also, the design changes made to the Australian National Flag in 1903 and 1908 were made to the Australian Red Ensign at the same time.
The Australian Red Ensign was subject to Admiralty warrants made pursuant to section 73 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (UK) until Australia's own shipping laws took effect in January 1982. The warrants and flag images appeared in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette as notifications from 1903 to 1939, and are listed below. These may be viewed at legislation.gov.au/Content/HistoricGazettes then select the year, then select the individual Gazette (as a pdf file) from the list.
No 8 of 20 February 1903 (page 93 and colour plate)
No 38 of 15 August 1903 (page 433)
No 65 of 19 December 1908 (page 1709)
No 29 of 22 May 1909 (page 1124 and colour plate)
No 18 of 23 March 1934 (pages 511, 512 and drawing)
No 32 of 18 May 1939 (pages 841 and 842)
Jeff Thomson, 20 December 2019
The Admiralty Warrant of 4 June 1903 authorised the Australian Red Ensign for
vessels registered in Australia. In 1932 it was realised that this did not
include the majority of private non-commercial vessels, which were rarely
registered. Technically they were liable to a substantial fine if they did not
fly the British Red Ensign. An Admiralty Warrant of 5 December 1938 replaced
that of 1903 and authorised all ships and boats owned by British residents in
Australia and New Guinea Mandated Territory to fly the Australian Red Ensign.
[Public Record Office ADM 1/8760/224 and ADM 1/9477]
David Prothero, 12 September 2001
This Admiralty Warrant authorising the wearing of the Commonwealth Red Ensign in place of the British Red Ensign had been signed on 25 November 1938 by Charles Little and Geoffrey S. Arbuthnot, and by command of their Lordships, R.H.A. Carter. The text of the Warrant was published in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 32, Thursday 18 May 1939, on pages 841 and 842 under the signature of R.G. Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister.
Jeff Thomson, 4 September 2017
Initially, the Red Ensign was the only flag
private citizens could fly on land. In 1941 Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister, announced that there should be no
restriction on flying the Australian Blue Ensign, and in 1947 the Prime
Minister, who was then Joseph Chifley, issued a press statement that actively
encouraged its use by private citizens. [The Australian Flag [fol96] by Carol Foley]
David Prothero, 12 September 2001
After the 1953 Flags Act, the 'blue ensign' became the national flag for private citizens on land. This is still true
Miles Li, 15 September 2001
The Australian Red Ensign has appeared at section 4 of the Flags Act 1953 since the Act was first made. From 1953 to 1982 this confirmed the flag design, linked the flag to the Navigation Act 1912 section 406, and named it as the Australian Red Ensign. The flag also appeared from 1912 to 1982 in the Navigation Act 1912 (Cth) at section 406. This section was a simplified combination of the flag provisions of section 73 of the parent British Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (UK) and the wording of the 1908 Australian Red Ensign Warrant. However section 406 of the Navigation Act did not come into effect in 1912. Along with many other sections of this Act, it commenced as from 1 February 1922. The proclamation for this was made on 21 September 1921 and published in Gazette No 76 of 29 September 1921 (page 1377).
This was the legislative situation until 26 January 1982 when the Shipping Registration Act 1981 and the Shipping Registration Regulations 1981 came into force. At the same time, section 406 of the Navigation Act was repealed, section 4 of the Flags Act was amended to simply name the flag and describe it in relation to the Schedules, and the Merchant Shipping Act ceased to apply in Australia. At this point the Australian Red Ensign Warrants were no longer in effect and it became a purely Australian flag.
A little-known aspect of the Australian Red Ensign's history is that when the new Australian shipping laws were being drafted in 1980, the government proposed having only the Australian National Flag as a maritime ensign. This meant that the use of warranted British Blue Ensigns by Australian yacht clubs would be phased out over two years, and the Australian Red Ensign would be immediately retired from use and repealed from the Flags Act. These two proposals were strongly and successfully opposed by the maritime community. The expanded role of the Australian National Flag as a maritime ensign since 1982 was originally intended to encourage mariners away from flying the Australian Red Ensign, but the Australian government no longer seeks to discontinue it.
Please be aware that since the discussions below were posted, on 1 April 2019 the Shipping Registration Regulations 2019 replaced the 1981 Regulations after they were automatically repealed. This 'sunsetting' process to the Regulations can be expected to take place every ten years or so in future.
Jeff Thomson, 20 December 2019
Under Section 30 of the 1981 Shipping Registration Act, an
Australian merchant ship can fly only the Australian Red Ensign, but other
Australian vessels can fly either the Australian Red Ensign or the Australian
National Flag, but not both at the same time.
David Prothero, 16 September 2001
http://www.amsa.gov.au/sro/brochures/broaros.htm [was] an online brochure published by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which confirms and expands on what David said:
Flying the FlagThe full text of the statute is at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/sra1981254/s30.html.
Registered commercial ships over 24 metres in tonnage length must fly the Australian Red Ensign. All other registered ships have the choice of flying either the Australian National Flag or the Red Ensign.
An unregistered Australian owned ship can be issued with a certificate entitling it to fly either flag. Some ships are allowed to fly other flags in Australian waters only. These include: a State or Territory flag, a flag or ensign authorised by warrant under the Flags Act 1953, and the British Blue Ensign if the owner intending to fly it has a warrant to do so valid under British law.
A brochure can now be found at:
The Australian Attorney-General's Department web
site, which is linked from the above referenced Australian Maritime Safety
Authority web site, confirms Regulation 22 (Section 30) applies.
Colin Dobson, 3 April 2005
In the above posts, the link supplied by Joe Macmillan goes to the Shipping Registration Act 1981 Section 30, which prescribes the 'National colours and other flags' that must, or may, be flown by 'Australian ships'. The link provided by Colin Dobson goes to a greatly simplified table of these requirements issued by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Below are links to the Shipping Registration Regulations past and present, which prescribe where and when 'ships' are to fly their national colours. Under 'sunsetting' legislation, these Regulations can be expected to be automatically repealed and replaced on 1 April every ten years.
Jeff Thomson, 24 July 2021
The history of Australian Red Ensign (ARE) use on land continues due to the Merchant Navy
Association flying the ARE at their headquarters and at memorial services. A number of TV
history dramas have ARE flying, The Dunera Boys was one such example. Old
sailors may do so also. Re-enactments of historical events also use the ARE. Finally, there is a history, however limited, of it still being used at rural
agricultural fairs. I can recall seeing it used at the ANZAC Day March in the late 1960s. The ARE is still in
declining evidence on land.
Steve Duke, 5 September 2007
Steve Duke's account of the Australian Red Ensign's land uses was correct as at 2007. In Army historic events it appears to be paraded to represent the wartime-only 'citizen-soldiers' who were the ones who usually flew it during both world wars. The flag is also flown by merchant maritime associations at several different remembrance events, including that for the Merchant Navy held on the Sunday on or after 21 October each year. Soon after Steve made the above comments, some changes began to take place with uses of the Australian Red Ensign, both ashore and afloat.
The proclamation of Merchant Navy Day, dated 24 June 2008 and published in the Gazette (GN 26 of 2 July 2008, page 1900) does not mention the Australian Red Ensign, but all Australians are encouraged to fly it subordinately to the Australian National Flag on 3 September each year. By coincidence this is also Australian National Flag Day, and the 'birthday' of both flags. It is also the first known time that the Commonwealth government has wholeheartedly encouraged all Australians to fly the Australian Red Ensign on land.
On 19 January 2010 a Sydney Morning Herald article highlighted a significant increase in the flying of the ARE as a boating ensign in the waterways of Sydney. Over the decade since, the flag has continued to be widely flown in this role. But unlike in the UK where flying of the (British) Red Ensign as a national flag is encouraged at civil maritime facilities, there has been no encouragement to do so with the Australian Red Ensign in Australia.
See: Southern Cross beats a retreat as the Red Ensign advances
Perhaps due to observance of Merchant Navy Day, the Australian Red Ensign has found it's way into various politician's electoral offices where it is sometimes seen during television interviews. It also appears at protest or political rallies, sometimes flown with the Australian National Flag or the Eureka Flag.
Jeff Thomson, 15 October 2015
During the trials period before newly-built Royal Australian Navy ships and submarines are commissioned, they are given the NUSHIP prefix to their name and fly the Australian Red Ensign.
The NUSHIP prefix also applies to Royal Australian Navy
ships under construction that are intended to eventually be commissioned and
carry the HMAS prefix. Australia appears to be the only nation worldwide to give
a formal ship prefix to it's warships under construction and during their trials
period prior to commissioning.
Jeff Thomson, 4 September 2017
An interesting article is published on The Conversation (https://theconversation.com)
- "What is the Australian merchant navy flag, the red ensign? And why do anti-government groups use it?"
Dave Martucci, 13 November 2021
In the Government-issued 'Australian Flags' booklet 2022 reprint, the artworks and presentation of the entire booklet were reworked whilst keeping the chapter structure and text largely unchanged (apart from simple updates). However, in this reprint the flag image and text for the Australian Red Ensign have been placed right beside the Australian White Ensign and Royal Australian Air Force Ensign in the 'ensigns of the Australian Defence Force' section. The very brief history of the red ensign in this entry states 'The Shipping Registration Act 1981 confirms the Australian red ensign as the official flag to be flown by Australian-registered merchant ships. Historically the Australian red ensign was used on land and at sea and Australians have fought under it during the First and Second World Wars.' Thus, by its placement in the 'ensigns of the Australian Defence Force' section, the Australian Red Ensign is presented as a defence flag which I understand it is not. I also believe it possible to misinterpret from the brief history that the red ensign is flown as Australia's war-flag during a major war.
Jeff Thomson, 12 September 2022