The view from Billinudgel

Freeing the flag
Allowing the Aboriginal flag to be used freely is an important step towards self-determination

Image © Rafael Ben Ari / Alamy

Dealing with Indigenous culture requires sensitivity and caution, so it is right that Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians, is taking his time with the delicate negotiations over whether the government could buy the rights to the Aboriginal flag.

The issue of who should have access to one of Indigenous Australia’s most revered symbols is an important one, and it must be treated seriously.

The Aboriginal flag has become synonymous with many memorable events. It appeared at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy from 1972, and it flew proudly with the Australian flag after Cathy Freeman won gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

And it has been embraced not only by the overwhelming majority of Indigenous Australians but also by the wider public. It is beautifully designed and instantly recognisable. The colours are entirely appropriate, whether you see them as black skin, red earth and yellow sun, or as simply recalling the ochre of traditional painting.

It is a flag that can be admired and cherished, a beacon for reconciliation and beyond. It is, in the truest sense, an Australian icon.

But there are strict limitations on how it can be used. The designer, Harold Thomas – a Luritja and Wombai artist from Alice Springs – has granted reproduction rights to, among others, a firm called WAM Clothing. It is an entirely proper arrangement, but one that means Indigenous enterprises cannot use the flag without paying a fee, which in many cases they simply cannot afford.

This is why the AFL, at the urging of its players and others, decided not to reproduce the design during this year’s Indigenous round. The AFL could have covered the cost, but it knocked back the opportunity to use the flag in solidarity with those who could not afford to.

It should be acknowledged that there is no problem with official use of the flag: it is frequently flown by all levels of government, at schools and public meetings, and is freely available for individual display. WAM Clothing’s ukase only extends to those who want to profit from it.

But given that an increasing number of Indigenous enterprises, especially struggling start-ups, fall into that category, Wyatt has entered negotiations with Thomas and licensees (including WAM) for the Commonwealth to acquire some or all rights to the flag, so it could be used freely. There is no suggestion of compulsion, and nor should there be. But an amicable settlement would be in everyone’s interest.

It is not clear how far the discussion has gone, but it appears that progress can be reported. Ray Griggs, the chief executive of the National Indigenous Australians Agency (which is involved in the negotiations), is sensibly keeping pretty quiet, but he seems at least cautiously optimistic, saying: “There is a desire from all parties to resolve this as soon as possible in a way that can end the divisiveness.”

Freeing the flag may not be as crucial as closing the gap or implementing the proposals of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but it would be an important step towards self-determination for Indigenous Australians. Wyatt’s efforts are to be applauded. He doesn’t get many wins, but bringing home this one would do much to vindicate his quiet approach. We will watch in hope.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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