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The Aboriginal Flag Should Fly On The Harbour Bridge Permanently

What message is sent to Australia’s First Nations people when the Aboriginal flag is flown atop our world famous landmark, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, just 19 days a year?

“Worthless” is the word Kamilaroi woman Cheree Toka has used.

Three years ago she began a campaign on Change.org asking for it to be flown on the bridge permanently -- a mark of respect, recognition and reconciliation with Australia’s First Nations People.

When I met her then, she confessed to me that every time that flag is unfurled from our iconic bridge -- the gateway to our glistening harbour of global renown -- but then packed away for months on end to gather dust, her heart breaks.

“It’s the disrespect,” she said.

Cheree told me she’s not a particularly political person but this was such a personal, powerful symbol for her, as it is for many Aboriginal people on whose land the bridge sits.

Every time the flag is unfurled from the bridge and then packed away, Cheree says her heart breaks. (Image: Supplied)

Little did we know that this young, non-political Aboriginal woman would spearhead a mass movement, spark a parliamentary debate, persuade a major party to announce it as election policy, ignite a boycott and lead protest marches across the bridge.

One side of politics -- Labor -- has backed her from the early days. But now, something remarkable is starting to happen -- she seems to be, finally, persuading some members of the NSW Liberals and Nationals government, using her army of people-power campaigners who are now growing too big and vocal to be ignored, with 126,000 signers of her Change.org petition.

The public gallery in last Friday’s parliamentary session was packed to capacity with supporters of the campaign -- from petition-signers to organisations like Amnesty International. Cheree had to doggedly gather 10,000 paper signatures to prompt the parliamentary debate -- her online signatures, archaically, didn’t count in the current Luddite rules.

Since then, more Aboriginal voices are pressuring the NSW government to act, joining a chorus that already includes prominent figures. 

Indigenous actor Meyne Wyatt said, “The fact the bridge sits in one of the greatest tourist locations in the world and without any acknowledgement to Aboriginal People [for most of the year] next to the Opera House, a symbol of colonisation with its dedication of white sails to the first fleet over the water, is truly a disgrace.”

Professional Indigenous rugby player Joel Thompson has also added his support: “It’d be a big step forward for our country. We could stand united and embrace our beautiful culture together. It’d be a proud moment for all Australians.”

The Sea Eagles' Joel Thompson also supports the flag flying all year round. (Image: AAP)

Currently, the Australian flag and the NSW flag sit atop the bridge for most of the year. The NSW flag occasionally gets swapped with another -- for example, during the Invictus Games last year. Hopefully, when Sydney hosts World Pride 2023, the rainbow flag will fly to welcome global LGBTQI visitors. But these are temporary swaps for special occasions.

The ‘special occasions’ the Aboriginal flag is flown are NAIDOC Week (8 days), Reconciliation Week (8 days), National Sorry Day, Apology to Members of the Stolen Generation and Australia Day.

In 2013, it was the NSW Liberals and Nationals Government that introduced the practice of flying the Aboriginal flag on the Harbour Bridge on Australia Day. This is something Premier Gladys Berejiklian repeats every time I ask her if she’ll listen to Indigenous Australians and the growing wider community of supporters who are pressuring her to make the Aboriginal flag a permanent fixture.

The Australian flag and the NSW flag sit atop the bridge for most of the year. The NSW flag occasionally gets swapped with another for 'special occasions'.  (Image: AAP)

What she doesn’t acknowledge is it was former Liberal NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell who introduced that practice, and he now urges the Premier to act, telling me in January: “I'd like to see both the Aboriginal and Australian flags atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Since my government's decision to fly both on Australia Day I believe the case has strengthened for flying the Aboriginal every day of the year. The bridge is a nationally recognised symbol of Australia and having both flags flying side-by-side would reinforce this and the nation's commitment to reconciliation.”

Berejiklian doesn’t have the same freedom in office as O’Farrell out of it. No doubt Alan Jones’s infamous, hectoring interview with Luke Foley -- in which Jones claimed giving the Australian and Aboriginal flag equivalence was “the most divisive thing I’ve heard from a political leader of any kind” scares her from action.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian so far hasn't backed Cheree's petition, but the tide is starting to change within the Liberal party. (Image: AAP)

The government’s own narrative is shifting. Previously, the Premier said that she believed the “status quo served us well”.

When contacted for this piece, the Premier said, “We are satisfied with the current arrangement,” noting that the flag already flies outside government buildings. But who is that "we" when some of her own colleagues appear to be breaking ranks from this embarrassingly colonial, tone-deaf and backwards position?

In Friday’s debate, Transport Minister Andrew Constance alluded to members of the government who were “keen to see this change happen”. Their own arguments against doing it were all listed as “technical difficulties” of erecting a third, or third and fourth, flag pole.

But those difficulties were rubbished by Shadow Roads Minister John Graham, who supports Cheree’s campaign and said, “Building the Harbour Bridge was an engineering miracle. I’m sure we can find a way to fly this flag if we’re serious about it.”

Cheree had to doggedly gather 10,000 paper signatures to prompt the parliamentary debate. (Image: Change.org)

This was echoed by Shadow Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Harris, who said in parliament: “We can build tunnels under the harbour and skyscrapers above it, but we’re supposed to believe the government when they say they can’t put a third flagpole on the bridge?”

This led Constance in parliament to promise to “take another look” at those technical issues to see what could be done, leaving Cheree optimistic and excited when I spoke to her outside parliament -- although Constance wouldn’t be drawn into a timeline when I asked him.

Even the Aboriginal Affairs Minister Don Harwin said, “My position is the same as my Premier’s.” This is despite him previously giving an interview to the Star Observer as an openly gay politician backing marriage equality saying: “As my career has developed I feel a strong responsibility to not pull the ladder up behind me, but extend it down for others.”

How befitting would it be if, by Australia Day 2020 -- a highly sensitive day for many Indigenous Australians -- those technical difficulties, clearly little more than delaying tactics, were overcome?

So that on 26 January, that flag isn’t unfurled just to then gather yet more dust, every speck a burn into a flag already marred by Stolen Generations, disproportionate incarceration and inter-generational trauma -- all a direct result of policies enacted by Australian Governments.

Imagine if it is instead left proudly up where it belongs on what always was, always will be Aboriginal land of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation.

(Image: Twitter)