Aboriginal flag a symbol of reconciliation

Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1995, p.13.
By Patrick Dodson

Patrick Dodson is the chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

Last Saturday I shivered my way through a flag-raising ceremony in Orange. The red black and yellow flag of Aboriginal Australia was raised at the civic centre to commemorate NAIDOC Week, which celebrates the cultures and survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. About half the audience were Aboriginal - the rest were from the wider community. The ceremony was presided over by the acting mayor of Orange.

It was a cold event but a great event. It was a unifying event. In Australia in 1995, it wasn't an unusual event. In fact, countless local authorities regularly raise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. They know the importance of the flags to indigenous people and their capacity to bring their communities together. In an inclusive and historic act, the Federal Government last week decided to proclaim the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags as official flags of Australia.

Official recognition doesn't mean that these flags have equal status to the national flag, still less supplant it. It does not create "nations within a nation". It does mean that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags among the most popular and recognisable flags in Australia - have legal status and protection. Most importantly, the Government's decision says to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: "You are a valued and unique part of the fabric of our nation."

For much of our nation's modern history the messages to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been the opposite to this message of inclusion. Indigenous people were not counted as part of the population until 1967 - before then, they were accorded a status equivalent to flora and fauna. They weren't included in discussion or voting on the issue of Federation. They were excluded from the life of the nation.

The Aboriginal flag was first raised in the early 1970s - a period when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were beginning to mobilise politically to fight their exclusion from proper education, health care, housing and employment, and their exclusion from the land they had cared for over countless centuries. In recent years, many non Aboriginal government authorities, organisations and individuals have shown their support for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by raising their flags.

For those who take an interest in the history of this country, who recognise its terrible legacy of injustice for indigenous people, the raising of the flag can be nothing but unifying and inclusive. Official recognition provides a powerful symbol of reconciliation.

What about the flags of other nations - whose people have migrated and now call this country home? Should they be proclaimed as Australian flags? No. They obviously have significance for many Australians, but they are not Australian flags.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags are fair dinkum home-grown and genuinely and undeniably Australian. They grew out of the experiences and aspirations of Australians - the first Australian peoples.

Many commentators seem incapable of grasping this undeniable truth. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the original inhabitants, owners and occupiers of Australia - as recognised belatedly by the High Court's Mabo decision in 1992.

When it decided to recognise the flags the Government was not acting in a vacuum. It was responding to specific recommendations from both the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in their social justice submissions presented to it in March this year. These submissions in turn arose from extensive consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities all over Australia. The purpose was to help us prepare a submission to the Government on what further social justice measures might be taken in response to the Mabo decision. Official recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags was one of 78 proposals lo come out of that consultation process.

The results of those consultations were printed and extensively circulated late last year, including to political parties and politicians. We expressly sought comments and responses from anyone wishing to offer them. The council's 25 members including representatives of all major political parties, farm groups, the mining industry, employers, unions, the media, ethnic communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - unanimously supported all the recommendations in our submission.

If a council of 25 people from diverse backgrounds positions and opinions can reach agreement through hard work and determined discussion so can the nation. The other recommendations cover many important areas including health, education, legal and constitutional issues, economic development and more.

Addressing all of these pressing issues in a meaningful way will require a national commitment. I believe that officially recognising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags for what they are is a step in the right direction. It is a growing understanding of our history. It is a commitment to our future together.