On Flag Appropriation and Other Problems with the Greens

by calendulate

Early in August, Greens MLA for Melbourne Ellen Sandell tweeted her plans for a campaign to push for the Victorian Parliament house to fly the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian one. The image that accompanied the tweet (and was posted also to Facebook) was of the Aboriginal flag, defaced – as one Twitter user put it – by the Greens logo which was superimposed in white over the lower part of the flag.

The social media response was fairly immediate, led in particular by actor and comic Nakkiah Lui who proceeded to school the Greens representative on cultural appropriation with firmness, patience and iconic wit. “Thought I was wearing my Aboriginal Flag cossie for cultural pride,” she tweeted, over a picture of a cute, pony-tailed girl in an Aboriginal flag-print one piece riding a bicycle. “Actually, I was a young @Greens supporter #auspol” and “Aboriginal Flag colours stand for: BLACK is the colour of our skin, YELLOW is the sun & RED… for The Greens #auspol”.  Lui’s timeline over the few days following the incident is a piquant opportunity to watch a lucid intelligence under pressure from some of the most foolish and entitled white nonsense that this country has to offer. “Ppl defending @Greens branding of Aboriginal flag w/ reasoning “*other political party* did it” are further disempowering Aboriginal ppl ½,” she wrote, “Youre using Aboriginal people as a commodity. Youre not an ally if you defend our disempowerment. We shouldnt have to settle for scraps 2/2”. Her acumen drew ire from some, who saw it as “pathetic”. “It’s a Greens advert they put their logo on all adverts. Greens do most for indigenous [sic]” tweeted one user, as if – even if this extraordinary statement were true – it would entitle the party to colonising symbols of Indigeneity. “No,” Lui shot back swiftly, “Aboriginal people do the most for Aboriginal people. This is our flag, not an advert.”

The Greens made no official response to the public concern, but deleted the photo from social media in what a appeared to be an attempt to hush the whole thing up (Labor staffers boasted with glee of having screen-capped the post; their time would perhaps have been better spent addressing their own party’s rather considerable race-fail). A couple of days later, Sandell’s Facebook page posted a victory message: a photograph of the Aboriginal and Australian flags flying over Parliament House (the image in fact came from NAIDOC celebrations) and claiming that such a sight would soon become a regular appearance. Buried within the self-congratulation was an equally fatuous nonpology:

(Note: after feedback today on our original Facebook square including the Greens logo, we have decided to take it down. We acknowledge the Aboriginal flag is an incredibly important symbol of heritage and culture, and should be deeply respected by all members of our society, which is why we are so happy with the outcome today and why we’ve taken down the original post.)

The post then hastily returned to a few more pats on the back for all involved – stating that an acknowledgement of country will now be read before each parliamentary sitting, the level of credit for which the Greens claim remaining unclear – and the page returned to its regular programming. (As a side note, I attended an action commemorating the death in custody of Yamatji woman Julieka Dhu on the steps of Parliament House a few weeks after this post and there was no sign of the flag).

The whole incident was rather unremarkably dispiriting: the Australian political mainstream are wont to inflict similar cruelties and transgressions against First Nations people in this country as a matter of fairly regular course – in fact absent Lui’s poised engagement the incident would not be particularly memorable. But appropriation of the flag aside, the whole affair was exemplary of the vacuous and facile nature of the Greens’ engagement with Aboriginal Australia and their fundamental inability to come to any kind of terms with issues of historical and continuing colonisation and genocide. Blogger Celeste Liddle wrote at the time that she was offended not so much by the appropriation of the flag by the Greens logo but the appropriative nature of flying it over a house of Parliament that occupies stolen land, does not represent Aboriginal people and in fact often openly inflicts violence against them.

Frankly, until we are living in a post-treaty society, I don’t really care about seeing an Aboriginal flag flying outside the parliament house. I am sick to death of continual symbolic gestures undertaken by the various levels of Australian government. To see such a symbol of our resistance flying outside the very buildings within which much of our oppression has been devised is a hollow, and almost offensive, gesture. Rather than thinking how we can be included, perhaps it’s time for some wrongs to be properly rectified. I want them to earn the right to fly our flag, and surely, they have not done this.

Even if one disagrees with Liddle (and I am sure many Aboriginal people do, Liddle herself is the first to remind us of the diversity of views that exists amongst Indigenous people), the flying of the flag is at best a symbolic gesture of inclusion. It is the only time that Aboriginal Australia has been mentioned since by Sandell since, and the last mention (at a very generous interpretation) was also about a flag – in May she posted a picture of herself with a primary school student in Kensington and the Aboriginal and Australian flags she had provided him with to replace his school’s ‘tatty’ old ones.

This is a party whose Victorian policy platform makes no mention of police brutality, incarceration rates, deaths in custody or the removal of children from families (which continues now at a rate that outstrips that of the Stolen Generations). The national platform is only marginally better, in that it at least makes mention of deaths in custody and perhaps at a stretch child removals in a kind of laundry list of National Inquiry recommendations that should be implemented; no further detail is ventured, however, on what the commissions say or how what they recommend might be realised. What the policies focus on instead are the more comfortable issues of reconciliation and Constitutional recognition, watered-down acknowledgements of “spiritual connection” to “traditional lands,” and a repetitious assertion that various services ought be “culturally appropriate” – whatever that might mean. (Dr. Gary Foley of Victoria University offers very accessible critiques of both reconciliation and recognition; Celeste Liddle has also written insightfully on the question of recognition on her blog and for the Guardian). The Greens have so far shown themselves to be completely incapable of engaging with the substantial resistance amongst Aboriginal people to Constitutional recognition, instead choosing to celebrate their support for the measure as if it were somehow revolutionary.

Rendering the Greens multiple failures of policy and engagement with Indigenous issues even less palatable is their apparent belief that they are the party of Aboriginal advancement (recall Lui’s interlocutor’s temerity in asserting that the Greens have “done the most for Indigenous,” a declaration that was probably made in all sincerity). Even this embittered ex-member can’t deny that of the major parties in Australian politics at the moment they are certainly the least egregious. But ‘least worst’ is a long, long way from ‘best’ – and the Greens appear to suffer under the unfortunate delusion that they are the best. At a memorial earlier this year for Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, two Aboriginal freedom fighters who were the first people to be hanged in Melbourne and are believed to be buried at what now forms a part of the Queen Victoria Market, Sandell and her Melbourne Council counterpart Cathy Oke spoke about their efforts to have a monument erected to the two men. Their chance at the microphone came directly after an address by activist Robbie Thorpe – a seasoned and deeply insightful speaker and a hard act to follow at the best of times. But his impassioned, illuminating and total rejection of colonial Australia – a “crime scene” as he often points out – appeared to embarrass the two Greens representatives not at all, as they gaily recounted their heroic efforts towards the monument – efforts that take place within a system of government rendered completely illegitimate by Thorpe’s critique.


Sandell made another attempt at sharing a microphone with Thorpe on invasion day only a few days later: George snapped this picture of her as she appears to attempt to edge towards the speaking platform on the steps of Parliament house. Organisers from Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and First Nations Liberation had been unequivocal in their designation of only Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander speakers that day: it was hours later, when the whole contingent had marched through the city (disrupting the “Australia day” parade in a moment of strategic brilliance: Pekeri Ruska’s inspiring behind the scenes account from the day in Black Nations Rising here comes highly recommended) and to Birrarung Marr that first Indigenous peoples from countries other than Australia and then – only then – non-Indigenous people were invited to speak. By then, of course, Sandell was nowhere to be seen. Read that as allegorical if you will.