Australian Red Ensign

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.[2] The winning design was based on the traditional British Red Ensign and featured the Southern Cross and Commonwealth Star.

Australian Red Ensign
UseCivil ensign
Adopted11 February 1903[1]
in use from 3 September 1901
23 February 1908 (current seven-pointed Commonwealth Star version)
DesignA Red Ensign defaced with the Commonwealth/Federation Star at the hoist, and the Southern Cross in the fly half


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.

Maritime Ensign

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.[3]


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.[4] 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.[5] State and local governments, private organisations and individuals were expected to use the red ensign.[6]

In 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.[7]

In 1940 the Victorian government passed legislation allowing schools to purchase blue ensigns.[8] 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.[9]

Prime Minister Ben Chifley issued a similar statement in 1947.[10]

1901–1903 version

After being submitted to King Edward VII for approval the competition winning design which featured a southern cross with nine, eight, seven, six and five points respectively was standardised by the British Admiralty with the number of points on the four biggest stars of the southern cross set to seven, ostensibly to improve ease of manufacture. The original variety of points was an indication of the relative brightness of each star as it appeared in the night sky.[11]

1903–1908 version

In 1908, the current Commonwealth star of seven points replaced the earlier six-pointed star.[12]

Flags Act 1953

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 be legislated for 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.[13]

Merchant Navy Day

Since 2008, 3 September has been officially commemorated as both Australian National Flag/Merchant Navy Day[14][15] which allows the Australian red ensign to be flown on land for the occasion as a matter of protocol.[16]

Historical red ensigns


  1. Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 8, 20 February 1903
  2. Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 27, 29 April 1901.
  3. "Shipping Registration Act 1981". pp. 10, 22. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  4. Elizabeth Kwan, Flag and Nation, University of New South Wales press, 2006, p. 106.
  5. "AUSTRALIAN FLAGS". Retrieved 7 July 2018.
  6. Kwan, 2006, p. 9-10.
  7. Kwan, 2006, p. 100, 106.
  8. Kwan, 2006, p. 92.
  9. Kwan, 2006, p. 92.
  10. Kwan, 2006, pp.96–97
  11. Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 8, 20 February 1903.
  12. Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 65, 19 December 1908
  13. Kwan, 2006, p. 106.
  14. Commonwealth of Australia Gazette S 321, 28 August 1996.
  15. Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. GN 26, 2 July 2008.
  16. Gordon Maitland, The story of Australia's flags: Our flags, standards, guidons, colours, banners, battle honours, and ensigns, Playbill Printworks, 2015, p. 259.
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