What is the flag of the Australian Merchant Navy, the red ensign? And why do anti-government groups use it?

The Australian red ensign – a red version of the familiar Australian flag – has appeared on media and social media in recent months. The question is, why?

Historically associated with Australian merchant ships, the Merchant Navy, the flag has recently been adopted by those involved in anti-containment and anti-government movements.

It is almost certain that the flag has gained popularity due to its use by the Sovereign Citizens of Australia (or “SovCit”) movement, a fringe group who believe the laws do not apply to them.

Since 2019, I have been researching the SovCit movement and the information it reveals about the (poor) public understanding of our legal order.

To understand why this particular flag is hoisted, one has to take a detour into their bizarre, conspiratorial pseudo-legal culture.



Read more: Many anti-containment protesters believe the government is illegitimate. Their legal arguments do not hold water


Who are the sovereign citizens?

Self-identifying sovereign citizens – and their counterparts the “Free Men on Earth” – believe they have a pure and true understanding of the legal system. The movement emerged in America and spread to Australia and other countries.

According to their version of the law, individuals are “sovereign”, which means that they are not bound by the laws of the country in which they live, unless they waive these rights by entering into a contract with the government.

Although the movement does not have a single leader or central doctrine, the SovCits believe that by reciting certain phrases, such as “I am a natural living being” or “I do not consent”, they can legally avoid any obligation. to obey laws and regulations.

Like a spell, these phrases grant them a cloak of legal immunity, and under that cloak there is no need to wear masks, pay taxes, or hold a driver’s license.

For those who understand the legal system, these arguments are without merit. Not surprisingly, the SovCits find it difficult to distinguish between valid and fanciful legal arguments: We do a poor job of educating Australians on how the legal system works, and the system remains irreducibly complex and deeply inaccessible to anyone. most Australians.

Nevertheless, SovCit’s arguments are devoid of any legal basis.

It is a mistake to think that such eccentric movements are benign. Some SovCits have been identified as anti-government extremists and a potential terrorist threat in Australia, as well as America.

The movement rose to prominence during the pandemic, with the “pick-and-choose” approach to legal obligations attracting anti-health activists, such as the infamous “Bunnings Karen”.

By encouraging people to ignore laws they don’t like, the SovCit movement poses an insidious threat to our legal order.

So what is the Australian Red Ensign?

Back to this strange flag. The Australian Red Ensign is the official flag flown at sea by merchant ships registered in Australia.

The flag was developed as part of the Commonwealth Government’s 1901 Federal Flag Design Competition, which resulted in two flags: the Australian Blue Flag familiar for official use by the Commonwealth Government and our National Flag, and the Australian red flag for the merchant navy, which refers to our shrinking commercial shipping fleet.

In the federation’s early years, the red flag was an important symbol of Australian identity as the primary flag used by private citizens on land and at sea. Australians fought under it during both world wars.



Read more: Public protest or selfish ratbaggery? Why free speech doesn’t give you the right to endanger the health of others


So, are marginal groups using it to suggest that they are private citizens? The history of the flag suggests that it is not that simple.

At the time of the federation, Australia was not an independent country, but a domination of the British Empire. Australian citizenship did not exist until 1948 and the British parliament could theoretically pass laws governing Australia until 1986.

Thus, in the half century after the federation, the official flag of general use was the Union Jack.

Like the current Governor General’s flag, the Australian blue ensign was only used by the Commonwealth government. It did not become the general national flag until 1953.

Prior to that date, if citizens wanted a distinctive flag to signify an Australian identity rather than a British one, they tended to (mis) use the Australian red flag.

Why do the SovCits use the Australian Red Ensign?

Unfortunately, the decentralized nature of the SovCit movement makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

For a movement that has an inherent mistrust of government, the historic use of the flag as a “people’s flag” must sound appealing.

A similar attraction may come from the fact that the ANZAC fought under this flag (as Australian divisions of the British Army).

Either way, however, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In both cases, these historical uses further testified to Australia’s identity as a British Dominion.

Indeed, RSL Australia condemned the use of the flag by protesters as disrespectful.

Alternatively, the use may derive from the maritime nature of the flag. One of the most outlandish claims of the SovCits is that the only valid sources of law are common law and “admiralty law”. As such, the flag of a maritime people must appear as the perfect symbol.

For a movement that has an inherent mistrust of government, the historic use of the flag as a “people’s flag” must sound appealing.
MICK TSIKAS / AAP

There are also darker possibilities. For some people, this could be an attempt to mirror the use of the Canadian red flag by the far right. In Canada, white supremacists see their red ensign as a throwback to a time when Canadians were predominantly white.

In the United States, the SovCit movement has explicitly racist and anti-Semitic roots, emerging from the Posse Comitatus movement led by the notorious preacher William Potter Gale.

A similar nuance may underlie the use of the flag in Australia, a racist desire for a “golden age” that did not exist when Australia was “free” and “white”.

To me, the use of this flag also suggests a desire for certainty and a simpler past, which, while misguided and exclusionary, perhaps emerges from the collective trauma of the past two years.

In the minds of these fringe protesters, they are not offenders, but patriots who have a deep and true understanding of the law.

Like the Australian Red Flag itself, these movements take familiar images and ideas and distort them.

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