After a five-year campaign by advocates, the government in New South Wales has permanently added the Aboriginal flag to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of Australia’s most popular landmarks. Because the original project would have taken two years and cost A$25 million, the new flag has replaced the N.S.W. flag on an existing pole. This high-flying symbol was made possible after the Australian government bought the Aboriginal flag’s copyright. Since its creation in 1971 by Indigenous artist Harold Thomas, copyright restrictions had limited the flag’s display, Aboriginal advocates explained. However, “now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away,” Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, said in a B.B.C. interview.
Australian citizens have generally received the new placement of the Aboriginal flag well. Cheree Toka, a Kamilaroi woman and an Aboriginal rights advocate, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the flag “is a symbolic gesture, however, it identifies the true history of Australia and to see that flag on the bridge will spark conversation and educate people about the Indigenous people of this country.”
By the same token, Laura Thomson, a petition organizer, stated in a B.B.C. interview that the flag is “a symbol of our people’s survival. Many of us don’t identify with the Australian flag because for us it represents colonization and invasion.”
While the new flag is a step forward in recognizing Aboriginals and the atrocities the Australian state committed against them during British colonialism, there is some concern about the political motivations behind the addition, especially given that the announcement was made one day before Australia Day.
January 26th, popularly known as “invasion day,” recognizes the arrival of Britain’s First Fleet to modern-day Australia in 1778. With this arrival began a series of systematic murder, resource exploitation, and eventually assimilation efforts. N.S.W. Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s 1814 assimilation policy, for example, sought “to effect the Civilization of the Aborigines of New South Wales, and to render their Habits more domesticated and industrious.” The sentiment and agenda stemming from this policy continued until the 1960s, and even today, Aboriginal Australians suffer from unfair prison, education, and governmental systems.
Aboriginal artist Rachael Sarra worried that P.M. Scott Morrison’s flag announcement “is diverting the narrative so come Jan 26 he can claim to be a hero and miss the whole point of why we protest every year.” The racism which remains institutionalized in Australia and its government blurs the genuine message of recognition.
Placing the Aboriginal flag on such an iconic monument is a commendable gesture, but it is not sufficient in the larger fight against racism. As in all developed post-colonial nations, the Australian state and civil society must undergo massive reforms before it can achieve true equality. For instance, the government should dedicate resources towards emphasizing education and healthcare for young Australian Aboriginals, rather than over-policing and mass incarceration. This, and all similar reform efforts, will require a wide-scale shift in thinking. Meanwhile, the Aboriginal flag will hopefully remind Australians not only of Aboriginal suffering, but also the imperative to create systemic change.