Triple J Hack: Aboriginal Flag Senate Select Committee

14 October 2020



AVANI DIAS, HOST: Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy is the chair of this committee looking into this issue. Senator, thanks so much for coming back on.

SENATOR MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Thank you. And hello to your listeners.

DIAS: There was a push for the government to use constitutional powers to acquire the Aboriginal flag and the rights to it. The committee's recommended against that. Can you tell us why?

MCCARTHY: Sure. We had over 70 people write in submissions and organisations and numerous witnesses who appeared before the inquiry, Avani. And it was important to take on board what majority had said. And the majority said that Harold Thomas, as creator of the flag, should not have huge copyright compulsorily acquired yet encourage him to obviously meet negotiations so that there could be a better outcome for for all people, in particular, Harold.

DIAS: You're a First Nations woman. What do you think should happen in regards to the Aboriginal flag?

MCCARTHY: Well, look, I think that if I can reach an agreement, if Harold Thomas and the government can reach an agreement that that is acceptable, then I think that's important. But I suppose the big thing that came through more than anything, Avani, was the complete distress of First Nations, people in particular, that they are being forced to pay to a company that they were completely unaware of. And the distress that that's caused has resulted in people even walking away from the flag or in some homes hanging it upside down. In terms of sorry business and mourning. It's been quite distressful.

AVANI: Isn't this a public flag, a symbol that means so much to many different Australians? Shouldn't it be publicly owned?

MCCARTHY: It's a national flag. There are three national flags: the Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. But the other two flags came about by a competition. This one, the Aboriginal flag, was done by one person, and we have to be careful of copyright and artists across the country, whether it's in art, whether it's in music or drama or whatever. There are laws surrounding that, and that was the complexity of this particular enquiry.

AVANI: So, you know, Harold Thomas is obviously negotiating with the government about this. Is he coming to the table? What's his view on this situation?

MCCARTHY: We did write to Harold Thomas to appear before us. He declined that invitation because of confidential negotiations underway at the moment. So this enquiry was about enabling First Nations people, but all people who wanted to have a say about the Aboriginal flag, to speak publicly and have their concerns heard by the Parliament. And they certainly did that.

DIAS: Aside from those concerns being heard, though, shouldn't there be some resolution here? It seems like it's sort of hanging in the balance, either way. What's actually going to happen here, considering that, you know, a lot of Aboriginal Australians are calling for this to be a publicly-owned flag.

MCCARTHY: Well, that's right, and that's why the parliament needed to be aware of it. And at that particular point, it wasn't. And I certainly commend those who pushed for petitions to make that awareness, which eventually led to this Senate inquiry. And there's extra political pressure. Clearly, as an opposition Senator, what I can do is continue to apply pressure on the government, and I certainly hope through this report we've been able to do that.

DIAS: And just quickly, Senator, Labor members of this committee have called for the government to take over the design if the negotiations with Harold Thomas aren't completed by January 26 next year. How would that even work?

MCCARTHY: What we've proposed is that the first two recommendations were unanimously supported by Government, Greens and Labor. Labor wen't an extra step and said if negotiations aren't successful, there needs to be compulsory acquirement of the license, and the license in particular of WAM clothing, which is causing this great distress right across the country. So we've put a timeline of January 26. We think, because the fiftieth anniversary, the flag is in July next year, time is running out and the value of the flag is diminishing with each day.

DIAS: Alright, Labor Senator MalarndirriĀ  McCarthy, really appreciate you coming back on this show. That is all we've got time for today on a Hack.