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Flagging a symbolic burning

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 23 February 2006

Curry and rice on January 26 sure beats the shrimp-on-the-barbie any day.

After taking advantage of some quality time alone with the children watching videos on yet another uninspiring Australia Day public holiday I waited patiently, after the main cooking preparations were over, for the rice cooker to click and signal the imminence of meal time. If the children had their way they’d open the lid within seconds of that delightfully sounding click but they have been well-versed, in the same manner as my mother-in-law earnestly reminded me when I courted her only daughter, never to release the lid for a good five minutes after the light changes colour.

Sometimes I wonder what the neighbours’ think of the fusion of the delights of Sri Lankan spices (my wife’s mother is Aboriginal and her father is Sri Lankan) and the exotic, if not aromatically challenging, fragrance of blachang (fermented krill). Whatever their reaction, or that of the passing foot traffic of high stepping power-walkers in our quiet suburban street, the predictable curry smell remains a recurring scent on every alternate night.


With yet another meal consumed in record time and the dishes washed and dried I decided to check out the news headlines on Channel 7 to see if anything exciting had presented itself as a newsworthy story over the past 24 hours. In particular I was hoping that the news flash would place some priority on the “invasion day” protest in Brisbane. My good friend Sam Watson, co-ordinator of the rally and march from Roma Street to Musgrave Park, invited me to speak at the assembly but I unfortunately had to decline as Rhonda (my wife) was away up north on family business.

Not only was the rally in the news bulletin, but it was given top billing. Wayne “Coco” Wharton, a cousin on my mother’s Kooma lineage, was at his media savvy finest, waving his arms about causing a spectacular tossing of his well preserved dreadlocks, while standing over a burning Australian flag. I recognised many prominent Indigenous advocates, including Sam Watson, congregating around the smoking flag as Wayne, as only Wayne could, stared directly into the TV camera lens while articulating his contempt for their flag.

Wayne, like his brother Toffy before him, avoided the piecemeal approach to conflict resolution and told it as it is: that the Australian flag stands for the continued oppression of Indigenous Australians and represents all that is ugly about a Coalition Government committed to minimising expenditure on Indigenous specific programs. The rest - well white Australia and their black sympathisers could decipher it themselves.

Wayne’s inflammatory remarks and spectacular action sparked an instantaneous public outcry, precisely the response a seasoned activist, like him, desires.

Within hours Bill Mason, Queensland President of the RSL, said he would write to politicians to urge them to make it a criminal offence to deface the Australian flag.

John Howard, speaking the following day, said he was offended by the burning of the Australian flag but added it should not be made a criminal offence.


So what is all the fuss about a burning flag? And how would I react if a non-Indigenous person burnt the Aboriginal flag? To answer these questions I needed to take a journey back in time to look at the origin and significance of the flags.

It is generally accepted that the origin of the humble flag goes back hundreds if not thousands of years, but the exact origin of flags is a matter of dispute. During the Middle Ages, flags were used mainly during battles to identify individual leaders: in Europe the knights; in Japan the samurai; and in China the generals under the imperial army.

From the time of Christopher Columbus onwards, it has been customary (and later a legal requirement) for ships to carry flags designating their nationality: these flags eventually evolved into the national flags and maritime of today.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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