The Australian Aboriginal flag was designed in 1971 by Harold Thomas, an Aboriginal artist who is descended from the Luritja people of Central Australia. The flag was originally designed for the land rights movement and became a powerful symbol representing the Aboriginal people of Australia.
The flag design is simple yet rich in symbolism. The top half of the flag is black, representing: the Aboriginal people and their connection to the land, the past, their spiritual and cultural history and the ongoing challenges they face. A red band (PMS 1795), depicting the red earth of Australia, represents the Aboriginal people's spiritual relationship with the land, as well as their connection to the Dreamtime … a significant concept in Aboriginal mythology and spirituality. A yellow circle (PMS 123) in the centre of the flag represents the sun. This symbolises the light that has guided and continues to guide the Aboriginal people, as well as their hopes for a better future.
The Australian Aboriginal flag and Torres Strait Islander flag were proclaimed flags of Australia under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953 on 14 July 1995. Both are often used in various contexts, including official ceremonies, events, and by Indigenous organisations.
Weirdly, given the ubiquity of its use throughout Australia, and until very recently, the intellectual property rights to the flag's design were privately owned by its creator, meaning that any application of the design, other than onto a flag, needed to be approved, with royalties paid to Thomas. Most Australians, including those behind “Free the Flag”, thought this to be very odd.
That all changed on 24 January 2022, when the Commonwealth Government announced, after more than three years of confidential negotiations, that Thomas had transferred the copyright in the flag to the Commonwealth, paying just over A$20m to Thomas and his licence holders to extinguish existing licences and secure copyright for the Commonwealth.
Upon this occasion, Thomas wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald:
"When I created the flag, I created it as a symbol of unity and pride. That pride we have for our identity that harks back to the birthing of our dreaming, to the present existence and beyond. And we humble ourselves and give homage to all that has been created and left for us.”
Many Aboriginal people celebrated the “freeing of the flag”; however, Bronwyn Carlson, Professor of Indigenous Studies and Director of the Centre for Global Indigenous Futures at Macquarie University, expressed a contrary opinion, suggesting that to "free" the flag for all and sundry may demean it as a symbol of Aboriginal identity and history. She wrote in The Conversation:
“The Aboriginal flag has always been our flag. We didn't need an act of parliament to recognise its significance."
Story Idea: Remo Giuffré
1. Australian Aboriginal flag flying in Canberra
2. Australian Aboriginal flag
3. Torres Strait Islander flag
4. The three officla "Flags of Australia"
5. Cathy Freeman at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. Image: Getty.
6. Big Aboriginal flag at a march in 2019. Photo: Glenn Hunt/EPA.
7. Laura Thompson, convenor of the #freetheflag campaign. Photo: Darrian Traynor for Getty Images
8. Australian Aboriginal flag designer Harold Thomas signs the agreement transfering the copyright of the flag to the Australian Commonwealth Government, 24 January 2022