ABC Sydney: Aboriginal Flag Committee chance to hear from First Nations Voices

ABC Sydney: Aboriginal Flag Committee chance to hear from First Nations Voices Main Image

25 September 2020



TOPICS: Senate Select Committee on the Aboriginal Flag

ROBBIE BUCK, ABC SYDNEY: Who would have thought 20 years later from that run that there would be discussion about who is allowed to wear it, to drape it, to use it, that there would be a copyright issue going on. That debate has been raging for the last few months. It was just a little over a year ago, of course, that the Aboriginal flag copyright issue first came to head. You probably know the story, a not for profit Indigenous community health organisation in Melbourne called Spark Health was thwarted from using the red and black and yellow flag in its fundraising campaign T-shirt by these copyright owners WAM Clothing. Well, Spark Health got so upset they started an online petition. The controversy has now boiled over into a Senate inquiry which has held a series of five public hearings over the last fortnight before reporting by the 13th of October. The inquiry committee chair is a Labor senator for the Northern Territory and Garrawa and Yanyuwa woman. It is, welcome to Malarndirri McCarthy. Good morning to you.

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Good morning, Robbie and good morning, Wendy, and to all your listeners have, a very good morning.

BUCK: This is I mean, I'm just thinking about 20 years ago and that flag. To think that we would be having this conversation seems inconceivable.

MCCARTHY: It's really quite sad, actually, Robbie, to be honest. I think the evidence that's come before us this past fortnight has been one really of frustration and deep sense of division amongst First Nations people right across the country. And yet there's been deep respect for the creator of the flag, and that's Mr. Harold Thomas. So there is a real conundrum here for the Senate committee to try and advise the parliament to the best of its ability as to which way to go here.

WENDY HARMER, ABC SYDNEY: Well, just if you could outline it for us, if you would, where the division is happening.

MCCARTHY: Yeah, sure, Wendy. I mean, we've got three flags in Australia: the Australian flag, the Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag. And those three flags are recognised as national flags. The difference, of course, with the Aboriginal flag is that it was created by Harold Thomas, whereas the Australian flag and the Torres Strait Island flag were created through a competition amongst Australians and Torres Strait Islanders for those two flags, respectively. So the difference here, of course, is that we're looking at copyright and the rights of an artist as opposed to the rights of those generally who have been very comfortable to use and wear their flag in all sorts of ways respectfully. If we look at the history of the Aboriginal flag, Wendy, it's going to be 50 years next year when that flag was first flown. So what's happened is that the copyright holder, who is Harold Thomas, a Luritja man from Central Australia, he has the right, as any artist does, to, you know, provide others to use his flag. And so what's happened in the last 12 months is one of those people who is a licensee organisation has now sent out cease and desist letters to Aboriginal organisations and individuals. And that's where the real problem has happened.

BUCK: Malarndirri, what is the possible solution to this? We know that WAM has got that copyright. We know there is a huge opposition to them retaining that copyright. But there's a real jam here. I know that a lot of people are pushing for the government to try and buy out that copyright. But, of course, it means it's being held potentially to ransom.

MCCARTHY: Well, that's correct. Yeah, absolutely. Spot on, Robbie. And this is a real dilemma for First Nations people. There's a very emotional attachment to this flag because it's symbolic in activism. The days of the you know, the fight, the Tent Embassy, the fight for rights, land rights, you know, Vincent Lingiari. So, there's this real activism that's associated with the flag and historic and emotional attachment, certainly for the older generation, especially those who've given evidence to it. And then the younger generation see it very differently. They grew up with this flag. They don't know anything different. So, there is a real issue here from a legal perspective Robbie that, you know, copyright is a rule of law. And so, we're going to need a great deal of wisdom to find a way through this.

HARMER: And Senator, have we heard from the artist himself lately?

MCCARTHY: Look, the artist has certainly been invited to attend the inquiry. And, of course, we'd love for him to give evidence. But we are aware through his lawyers that he's engaging in negotiations with the minister and we're conscious that those negotiations are occurring. But what hasn't occurred Wendy, is that, the voices of First Nations people and all of these organisations have not been heard. And that's what this Senate inquiry has been about.

BUCK: Are you feeling hopeful that it will be returned to the people?

MCCARTHY: Look, I'm hopeful that we can find a way through. But what I've learnt through this couple of weeks is that we've got the next generation of First Nations people who see it very differently. You know, we've even had submissions. We've had over 50 submissions come through to the Senate inquiry suggesting that, you know, if negotiations cannot be adequately and sufficiently reached, then let's have a look at a competition for a new flag.

HARMER: Oh, wow. That's huge.

MCCARTHY: I know, I said the same thing, Wendy, that's huge, absolutely huge.

HARMER: That is absolutely huge. So when are you due to release your report?

MCCARTHY: We’re due to table the report in the Senate on the 13th of October. So, we haven't got too much longer to do this. We've got Dr Terri Janke providing her evidence today, and Dr Janke is well respected for her experience in intellectual property rights. And it's really important that we do hear from her today.

BUCK: All right. Well, all eyes will be on that report when it comes down on the 13th of October. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

MCCARTHY: No worries. We'll keep you posted.