Monday, 2 July 2012

The flag police (they come to me in my sleep)

I love Australians.

I love the way we maintain that we’re very easy-going while allowing ourselves to get uptight about stuff for no very good reason.

I was musing on this topic as I walked into the office this morning, past the flagpoles which were conspicuously lacking the two officially proclaimed indigenous flags of Australia on this first day of “National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Observance Committee” (NAIDOC) Week.

I imagined how “Angry, of Eaglehawk” would write to the Bendigo Advertiser to express his outrage that a state government office was not only not flying the flags, but that not flying them on the first day of NAIDOC Week could only be a deliberate insult to all indigenous people. Then “Angry” would meander back onto familiar ground to advance this as further proof of the evils of the current government and the inadequacy of indigenous funding, before ending with a call to establish “Mabo Day” as a public holiday.

This reverie amused me because, far from there being any deliberate insult intended, I knew that the flags were actually in the hands of the local Dja Dja Wurrung elders to be blessed before they raised them again in a traditional smoking and flag-raising ceremony this afternoon.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I'll type it again: "traditional smoking and flag-raising ceremony".  Look, it would be very easy to lampoon the po-faced approach of officialdom to indigenous traditions which seem to be anything but traditional. At the very least, there is mileage to be made from the phrase “NAIDOC Week”, which contains a glaring temporal contradiction. Traditions have to start sometime and who says that can’t be now? Furthermore, you’ve really got to admire the way that Australian indigenous representatives have embraced European practices to promote their activities.

For example, there being no tradition of flag-use in indigenous culture is obviously no obstacle to conducting a traditional smoking and flag raising ceremony. The one I attended today, as well as leaving me smelling a bit smoky, had me smiling in admiration, because it was nicely executed and also because I noticed that the flag was both authentic and inauthentic at the same time.

Let me explain. Virtually every government office in the country flies the Australian Aboriginal Flag (and the Torres Strait Islander Flag) alongside the Australian National Flag. In a 1997 Federal Court case, Mr Harold Thomas was recognised as sole author of the artistic work of the flag for copyright purposes and he, in turn, granted the manufacturing and marketing rights for the flag to Carroll and Richardson Flags, in Mulgrave, Victoria. Any Aboriginal flag not manufactured by them or personally authorised by Mr Thomas could, therefore, technically be in breach of the Copyright Act 1968. No government is going to take the risk of buying and flying an unauthorised flag, so Carroll and Richardson have an effective national monopoly. The flag outside our office carries their mark, so it is authentic. With me so far?

The guaranteed income stream from being the sole authorised supplier of Aboriginal Flags to the nation's government offices seems to have lulled Carroll and Richardson into complacency, because the proclamation for the Australian Aboriginal Flag depicts a flag with a 3:5 ratio (e.g. its width should always be one and two-thirds its height), but the official flags are made in a 1:2 ratio (its width is twice its height).  Thus, the flag outside our office is also inauthentic.

(The reverse problem often occurs with the Australian National Flag, which should have a 1:2 ratio but is often manufactured with a 3:5 ratio.)

Now, I’m a pretty easy-going person, but this sort of thing irritates me. It’s not that I’m a flag nut, I’m not. Okay, I once phoned Kerry-Ann Kennerly’s producers on the Queen’s Birthday to point out that every one of the six or seven Union Flags displayed on their set, both horizontal and vertical, was backwards, but that was a one time thing! These days I just ask people if they wish to display their flags correctly and, if they say they don’t, I leave it alone.

So, having been amused by the flag outside, I walked inside for the presentation and afternoon tea and saw this:

Yes, both flags were hung backwards. Top left stays top left, regardless of which way you hang a flag. (Kids, if you’re wearing the flag as a cape on Australia Day, the British bit goes on your left shoulder, not your right.)

I asked the guy who hung the flags if he was bothered about whether it was done correctly or not.  He said he didn’t care, so instead of getting uptight about it I sat down and wrote this.

See?  Completely easy-going, that's me.


  1. Sounds like this indigenous flag is as kosher as the "welcome to country" pantomines. I heard that the "welcome to country" ceremonies were conceived by Ernie Dingo, and are based on some South Pacific islander ceremonies.

    I'm glad that Ernie didn't incorporate grass skirts, could have been dangerous at the smoking ceremonies. Ernie didn't patent this pantomine (if patent is the correct word?) so he doesn't collect any performance royalties.

  2. Yes, I have also read that Ernie initiated the practice, in response to a request from a WA local government authority. Like I said in my post, there's no rule about when traditions may start, but nobody should be under any allusions that such ceremonies are part of anything but a modern tradition.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.