The Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, is passionate about the Aboriginal flag — she even has it tattooed on her arm.
- A clothing company is at the centre of a campaign to “free the flag” after it issued cease and desist notices to sporting codes
- Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney is in the process of drafting a bill over the issue
- Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt warns Labor is risking “delicate” negotiations with their plan
The Wiradjuri woman, and first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, is in the process of drafting a private member’s bill designed to “free” the flag.
The Aboriginal flag was designed by Harold Thomas, a Luritja man, who put together the black, red and yellow design for a 1971 event.
He holds the copyright and has granted licences to a flag maker, souvenir business and a clothing company called WAM Clothing.
WAM Clothing, which is not owned by Indigenous Australians, has been at the centre of a campaign to “free the flag” after it issued cease and desist notices to sporting codes that used the flag on clothing and approached other organisations that it maintained were using the flag without providing payment.
The issue was raised again in recent weeks when AFL fans were urged to bring their own flag to the Dreamtime round of the competition.
The sporting body chose not to pay for the flag to be displayed on the sporting field.
Bill still a draft, everything on the table
There are no details about what the private member’s bill might contain and whether it could go so far as to suggest compulsory acquisition of the copyright.
Given the Government has the majority of votes in the Lower House, there is also no guarantee such a bill would have any serious prospect of being passed into law.
But the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has already warned that Labor is risking “delicate” negotiations over the flag, just by raising the prospect of allowing MPs a say in deciding the flag’s future.
Mr Wyatt said he was already working to resolve the matter and had held discussions with Mr Thomas.
“It is a delicate and sensitive matter, and the Government respects the copyright of Mr Thomas and the interests of all parties,” a spokesperson for the minister said.
The Minister maintains the private member’s bill “will not free the flag”, arguing Labor is wrong to suggest it would.
“The Australian Aboriginal flag can continue to be flown freely, as per the intention of copyright holder Mr Thomas. Any suggestions that it can’t be flown freely are again misleading.”
Flag being held ‘hostage’
Earlier this week, Ms Burney told Parliament Mr Thomas had “every right” to do as he wished.
“The Federal Court has recognised Harold Thomas as the author of that flag, and that is an important point in this discussion. Harold is a deeply respected Luritja man from Central Australia,” she said.
“But we also say very much that, while we recognise Harold’s copyright, Australia is made up of many Aboriginal nations — hundreds, as well as the Torres Strait — and the Aboriginal flag is one symbol that unites those Aboriginal nations.”
She said many people had been “shocked and appalled” by the restrictions that had recently come into force about the use of the flag.
“The takeover of the flag by private interests has appalled so many people, particularly because WAM Clothing has publicised links to another corporate entity, Birubi Art, a company which was last year fined $2.3 million after being prosecuted by the ACCC for selling fake Indigenous art made overseas,” she told Parliament.
She said the flag was being held “hostage” and it was an issue of morality.
WAM Clothing points to concessions
Last week WAM Clothing issued a statement on its Instagram page saying Mr Thomas was paid royalties under their agreement, and stressed that the licensing deal did not stop people from “flying the flag”.
The statement said WAM Clothing was “not stopping Aboriginal people or the community from using the flag for personal use” but when it is used on clothing for commercial reproduction “then we need to talk”.
The statement goes on to say WAM Clothing had made concessions, like allowing the use of the flag without charge on a small run of jumpers being distributed among elders.
It also points to an instance where an Aboriginal community wanted to put the flag on flyers for social club events, and that was allowed without a fee being made payable.
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