TOPICS: Senate Select Committee on the Aboriginal Flag
KATIE WOOLF, MIX 104.9: There's been plenty of discussion in recent weeks about the Indigenous flag and the fact that, you know, we had the AFL round, the Dreamtime round, where the Aboriginal flag was not able to be utilised or used, you know, really to celebrate our Aboriginal heritage in Australia at that round. I mean, I think that really highlighted it for so many people who maybe were not aware of these issues around copyright and it not being able to be utilised and really flown freely. Now, joining us on the line to talk a little bit more about this situation and give us an update on where things are at is the Senator for the Northern Territory, Malarndirri McCarthy. Good morning to you.
MCCARTHY: Good morning, Katie. Good morning to your listeners.
WOOLF: Now, Senator, I understand that there's been a number of hearings. Can you talk us through what has happened so far?
MCCARTHY: Yes, Katie, we've had two weeks here in Canberra of witnesses appearing before the Senate Select Committee on the Aboriginal flag. We've had over 50 submissions. And we're just in our final day today of hearing evidence this afternoon. And it really comes down to largely the concerns from witnesses that Harold Thomas, as creator, should be respected and a negotiated agreement to copyright met. But there has been suggestions that if that doesn't occur, then there should be a consideration of a new flag.
WOOLF: Wow. I mean, that would be a massive call.
MCCARTHY: It's huge, isn't it?
WOOLF: Yeah, that would be quite unbelievable to have a new flag. I think, you know, that Aboriginal flag is just so recognisable and something that all Australians, whether Indigenous or non-indigenous, resonate with.
MCCARTHY: Well, that's right. And this is the conundrum, really, and the dilemma for the Senate to give as much advice and seek as much wisdom on a way forward here. there are incredibly passionate speakers and witnesses who definitely want the flag to keep going. But many who just feel they can't be held to ransom at the costs by a particular licensee. So just for the benefit of your listeners, just so they understand. We've got three flags that are national flags: the Australian flag, the Torres Strait Island flag and the Aboriginal flag. The difference with the Aboriginal flag is that it was created by Harold Thomas, a Central Australian Luritja man, and he has copyright unlike the Australian flag in the Torres Strait Island, they belong to to the government because they began as competitions and the copyright has stayed with the Australian parliament. So Harold Thomas does have the right as copyright artist to give a licence to others. And he's done that. And over the decades, it's obviously gone okay. But in the last 18 months, there's a particular licensee who is charging people exorbitant rates. We heard from the Koori Knock-Out Sports Group. So we're talking about grassroots sports, sports-based, school-based places and health, who were charged $10,000 to be able to put the Aboriginal flag on their uniforms. And, you know, it's, it really is a concern. So the Senate is taking it quite seriously.
WOOLF: Yeah, I bet. Now, I mean, what has the inquiry sort of, I guess it's still got a way to go, but what are the next steps? What needs to happen next?
MCCARTHY: Well, we're hearing some more evidence today, Katie. And then basically I've got, I've got to write the report. So, so as Chair, I'll be working with the other senators to write the report over the next fortnight and then hand it down in the Senate.
WOOLF: Malarndirri, I mean, I guess, you know, if you can, speaking freely, not only as a Senator, but as a very proud Indigenous woman, what would you like to see happen?
MCCARTHY: Look, this is really sad, actually, Katie, like, you know, we shouldn't really be talking about this issue because there are so many other issues to be dealing with in First Nations sort of disadvantage. But the reality is, is that the flag holds incredible symbolism and emotional attachment. It's combined with the early days of activism and the fight for land rights and a sense of equality and dignity and continues to be that. But at the same time now there's a sour taste in people's mouths when they feel that, you know, it doesn't really unite people as much as it should. And that's really the question here is, it's causing far greater division than unity.
WOOLF: Malarndirri, has the inquiry heard from Harold Thomas himself?
MCCARTHY: Look, I'm the chair and so is Senator Perin Davey, who's the Deputy Chair, both of us have written to Mr. Thomas, first time inviting him to appear. And then we did receive a response saying that he was in the midst of negotiations with the minister, Ken Wyatt. And at that point, he wasn't sure that he'd want to appear. We wrote again and he responded that he was in he'd had a death in the family. So we understood that perhaps he may not appear. I'm still hopeful we may get some sort of written response to the inquiry. But I must point out to your listeners that whilst Mr. Thomas might be engaging with his lawyers with the government, this inquiry was also in particular about First Nations voices and all voices, really, I mean, it's not just about Aboriginal people, this is about all Australians who feel very strongly about the Aboriginal flag and the sense of unity that it has brought. I mean, look at the, you know, 250,000 people that walked across the Harbour Bridge for reconciliation, Katie, you know, and all the reconciliation days that we have in our schools and assemblies and their acknowledgements. So it really is all about those people having their chance to speak to the Senate, to the parliament, so that we can hopefully guide the parliament as to how to move forward in these negotiations.
WOOLF: Yeah, it just seems so unbelievable that we are in a situation, you know, like you pointed out at the start, we've got the three national flags and that this is the, that our Aboriginal flag is the only one that cannot be flown freely. And that's quite literally, you know, there's a situation where, you know, we're at some of these sporting carnivals and the like, you're having to pay to actually be able to have the Aboriginal flag on kids uniforms.
MCCARTHY: Well, that's right. And it comes down to the merchandise and the clothes. I guess, in terms of flying the flag, there's no problem with flying it per se, like on flagpoles and holding the flag up in terms of the general community. But if you are an organisation like Danila Dilba or any of the Aboriginal Medical Services, for any of you to have the flag on your uniforms or any of the Indigenous or Aboriginal liaison officers at hospitals or sporting groups and even the Wallabies and others who've held the flag on their uniforms, they are all very aware that these cease and desist letters from this particular company are very real.
WOOLF: Again, I just, I just find it unbelievable. I suppose for me, I'm thinking of, you know, like when my nephews played at the Indigenous carnivals and things like that. And, you know, the boys have all got their flags on their uniforms and how proud they all feel. And, you know, thinking about them then, you know, thinking about those teams having to pay to actually do that, it just seems unbelievable that we're in this situation.
MCCARTHY: And especially when we've just been celebrating Cathy Freeman's 20 years at the Olympics Gold Medal and and the Aboriginal flag there. So I think it's an important crossroads for our country at the moment, especially in Aboriginal affairs, we're coming to the 50th anniversary of the flag next year, Katie. And I guess the question for this inquiry and for the way I write this report is, are we looking at, you know, 50 years of history or are we looking at a new beginning?
WOOLF: And yet and this is the thing, if we are looking at a new beginning, you know, how do you even start that process of designing a new flag, or going down that path? And how long does that take?
MCCARTHY: Well, yeah, good question. I mean I looked into it with the Australian flag, and that was done back in a 1901. And it actually was a competition and there was around 32,000 entries. And the design of the Australian flag came about by five artists actually. And they were all paid a certain fee, I think it was 40 pounds of the day. And, you know, but then copyright still belonged obviously to the Commonwealth and it was the first prime minister, Prime Minister Barton who delivered that. And I think. So we've got a record of how the first, the Australian flag came about and with the Torres Strait Island flag, it was the same thing. They had a competition in the Torres Straits, and it now is under the care and custodianship of the Torres Strait Regional Authority. But the Aboriginal flag is not.
WOOLF: So it's certainly doable. But I guess whether we go down that path or not remains to be seen. How would you feel if it if it did go down that path?
MCCARTHY: Yeah, look, I'm at the moment, I'm obviously really immersed in all of the evidence that's been put forward to me, incredibly passionate, you know, responses by people. Some who are very strong in terms of, you know, what should happen going forward. So I've got to really reflect on all that. And I guess to bring in my own cultural background as well into all this, Katie, so it's going to be a really special report, it's going to be an important one for the Australian Parliament and again in history of our country.
WOOLF: Well, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, we always appreciate your time. Really appreciate you coming on air this morning and letting us know exactly where the inquiry is at and giving us a lot more detail.
MCCARTHY: Thanks, Katie. And thanks to your listeners.