Where The Bloody Hell Are Ya, Aboriginal Flags?
It’s late January. Days are long, nights are hot, and the beer is cold. Summer is in full swing Down Under, baby. If you’re a student, you’re lamenting that you’re now three quarters of the way through your four-month long summer break. If you have a “grown-up” job, you’re hanging out for another public holiday piss up, despite the fact you only went back to work two weeks ago.
Enter: January 26.
On my suburban street, Australian flags are popping up: hung in windows, flown on flag poles and brazenly embellishing fences. The scene is worse at the shops. Wandering through my local – regional, largely white in demographic – shopping centre, Australian flags are everywhere. Dollar stores tout Australiana paraphernalia, under the guise of patriotism.
Products stocked are mostly stereotypically “Aussie”. Shot glasses. Stubby holders. Wife beaters. Thongs. Even the names of these objects are rooted in Australian slang. They’ve got everything to ensure you are patriotism personified come January 26. Two of my favourite items in the sea of shit are shirts with pro-alcoholism slogans, and cigarette butt buckets with Australian flags. Because, of course, excessive smoking and drinking are our nation’s real pride. There are oversized sunglasses in the Kanye West-circa-2007 shutter style, tiny toothpick flags to stick in your cocktail wieners, and don’t forget the classic misappropriated leis and hula-skirts, all in the flag’s colours of blue, red and white. In fact, all of this stock is blue, red and white. Maybe a touch of the green and gold that’s more commonly sported by our sporting stars in the international arena, but, mostly blue, red and white.
Something seems a little bit off.
Something seems a little… un-Australian.
No, it’s not that these products are made off-shore, on the shores of those – and potentially by those – who wish to land on ours and seek asylum. No, it’s not that this particular dollar store is charging an outrageous $24.99 for a giant inflatable thong with the Australian flag sprawled across it. And no, it’s not the fact that some of the flags on these goods are backwards.
It’s the damn dominance of the blue, red and white.
Where the fuck is the black, yellow and red?
After the penny drops – heavily – in my mind, I become hell-bent on finding a t-shirt, a tote, or heck, even a toothpick, with the Aboriginal Australian flag on it. I meekly seek the assistant’s help.
“Excuse me, do you have anything with the Indigenous flag on it?”
“Um, sorry, I’m just after something with the Aboriginal flag on it. Do you have anything?”
His brow furrows. We are standing about a metre away from the wall of Australian National flags, and I see him look over my shoulder at the shelves of crap and back to me.
“A boomerang?” He offers.
The Australian Aboriginal flag was designed by Harold Thomas, of the Lujrita people of Central Australia. Thomas has explained that the three colours are representative of the environment; black for the Aboriginal people of Australia, the yellow circle for the sun, the giver of life and protector, and red to represent the red earth, the red ochre used in ceremonies, and Aboriginal people’s spiritual connection to the land. Some people believe the red is also symbolic of the blood of massacred Aboriginal peoples at the hands of European colonisers, the commencement of which is often marked as January 26, 1788.
Thomas owns the intellectual property rights to the flag’s design. As such, the flag is under copyright. However, Thomas has granted private company, Carroll and Richardson Flags, the right to manufacture and market the flag. Thomas will, at his discretion, extend permission to other individuals and businesses for reproduction of the design. So, if my lenses were particularly rose-coloured, I might attribute the lack of Koori colours to this copyright. But, when I consider the many unlicensed products dollar stores flog (think “Disney” products, people), I’m still disappointed. Although perhaps it is better that profit made from the Aboriginal flag design be rightfully distributed, and not in the pocket of Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers the way this blue, red and white will end up.
There’s controversy surrounding both the Aboriginal Australian flag, and the Australian National flag. The latter was used in the infamous and inhumane 2005 Cronulla race riots to incite racially charged violence. The riots were a result of increasing tension between Cronulla beach locals and those from Western Sydney – particularly those of Middle-Eastern background and or appearance. By 2006, police had laid 285 charges against 104 people as a result of the riots. Charges ranged from resisting arrest, malicious damage, rioting, and physical violence. A 16 year-old was arrested and jailed for seven months for stealing an Australian flag from an RSL club, and burning it. Whilst flag burning is not illegal in Australia, it is a clear demonstration of disrespect and intolerance. After the riots, fears that the flag would be used to encourage “anti-social behaviour” rose, much to the then Prime Minister’s dismay.
Appallingly, the Aboriginal Australian flag was recently used by anti-Islamic imbeciles, Reclaim Australia, at a rally in 2015. Harold Thomas publicly condemned the use, and rightfully so. Rally organisers claimed to be supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) peoples by “Reclaiming Australia” for its First Peoples. However, comments made by one of Reclaim Australia’s most out-spoken members (a tough title to win, considering the distinct brusque way of these folk), Shermon Burgess, indicate otherwise. Burgess stated in a YouTube video that ATSI people were “dickheads” who were “still blaming the modern generation for what happened 200 years ago”. Attitudes like this are perpetuating January 26 jingoism, and are a roadblock to reconciliation.
I have a love hate relationship with the Australian National flag. I am an Australian citizen by birth, and the very proud owner of an Australian passport. I am thankful that this document enables me to freely travel to so many countries. Whenever I am abroad, there is always a nice feeling of mateship and comradery when I spot the Australian National flag. But that feeling isn’t the same at home. There’s an uncomfortable knot that tightens when I see the national flag in isolation, and not side-by-side with the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flag. The Southern Cross is synonymous with bogans, and I am perhaps too quick to assume you’re racist if you have a Southern Cross tattoo. Modern Australia deserves a flag that represents all Australians, and that all Australians can be proud to bear. But Modern Australia has a responsibility to ensure we recognise our unity as a nation on a date that all Australians can celebrate without mourning, bitterness, or superiority.
So, what are you doing this January 26? I’ll be working in retail, receiving penalty rates for a holiday I don’t agree with. But I’d forgo the ridiculous rates to see true and sincere reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. I’ll probably have a beer, and slip, slop, slap in the summer sun. I will have important conversations with friends and family about the significance of January 26, and why we should #changethedate. I’ll feel uneasy and uncomfortable. But I will stand with and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
And I implore you to as well.