Aboriginal flag has many roles, says designer

Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 1994

The designer of the Aboriginal flag, Mr Harold Thomas, says it is his intellectual property and he would have to give permission before it could be incorporated in the Australian flag. "They'd have to ask me. It's as simple as that," said Mr Thomas, whose design has been beamed to millions of TV viewers worldwide, courtesy of athlete Cathy Freeman, and is now being mooted to oust the Union Jack in the corner of a new Australian flag.

Would he say yes? "They'd have to give me some time to think about it. I wouldn't reject it out of hand, but I could make a decision to say no. "It's not a secondary thing. It stands on its own, not to be placed as an adjunct to any other thing. It shouldn't be treated that way."

Mr Thomas, a Luritja man, originally from Central Australia, who designed the flag in 1971, said he had to consider its sacredness to many Aborigines, including those long-dead who had fought for their own cause. "It's like it has a tjuringa - a sacred object - placed in it. They place the flag over the coffin." But, he said, the flag, which had sprung from his knowledge of ancient Aboriginal art and modern Australian culture, had many roles expressing different things "from the joy of Cathy Freeman to the political struggles in Canberra".

Mr Thomas said he would prefer something completely different for a new Australian flag - such as a rainbow, representing the many cultures that live here. The Arthur Tunstall reprimand? "Personally, if Cathy had my mind I would say I only had one flag." Her critics did not understand "the politics of Australia regarding Aborigines and non-Aborigines", he said.

A trained artist, Mr Thomas replaced the earthy ochres of his original design with the primary red, yellow and black to be eye-catching in land rights protests. "In the marches of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were outnumbered by non-Aborigines with their own placards and banners. I decided we needed to be more visible and so the flag came up. It made us a distinct group." It first flew in 1971 in Adelaide and Aborigines adopted it nationally after it adorned the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972.

Mr Thomas, a watercolour and oils artist who lives at Humpty Doo, just outside Darwin, missed the heat of the Freeman furore because he was "down the track out in the bush, painting - and there's no telephone or TV down there". When he got back from beyond Mataranka, he said, he watched a re-run of Freeman's victory lap on the news and saw his flag, normally associated with land rights, imbued with new, international meaning. "It is my work, but when people take it on like Cathy did, it becomes their flag," he said. "I'm just an onlooker and an observer."

Mr Thomas said he is still pursuing his copyright ownership over the flag. Not knowing the Copyright Act when he designed it, he bad failed to register it before 50 articles were produced. Missing out on the royalties was very frustrating, he said. "Unfortunately, now non-Aborigines make it to sell back to Aborigines. It's like the Taiwanese making boomerangs to sell back to Australia," lamented Mr Thomas, adding he had received "no awards, no money, no nothing" for the design.

He said people often asked him to design flags, but the Aboriginal flag had sprung from passionate times and could not be repeated. And what of its role snowballing beyond land rights, beyond Australia? "When they put it on TV, I'm happy. It's my propaganda. It's doing its job."