ACT News


Cultivating a flower for our flag

Platypuses are sensitive creatures so please keep from them the sensational disclosure, made later in this column, that the designer of Canberra's controversial coat-of-arms thought their species ''lacked dignity''. That's why there are no platypuses on our coat of arms and why he, the arms' designer, employed swans instead.

More of this wicked speciesism in a moment. Meanwhile, the present flurry of debate about Canberra's 1928 coat of arms (and the ACT flag that is decorated with a version of it) has nudged Ivo Ostyn, designer of the present ACT flag, into comment.

It emerges he has never liked the cluttered, and he says ''heraldically incorrect'' coat-of-arms-embossed design the ACT government of the time, 1992, made him make. He always preferred his far simpler design of our floral emblem (the royal bluebell, Wahlenbergia gloriosa). At the time he offered the government that simpler, flower-decorated design ''But, though there was a good chance of doing something beautiful, they were obsessed with having the coat of arms.'' Ostyn contacted The Canberra Times to remind us of the bluebell design he'd set his heart on but which found no favour with the powers that be.

Back to Ostyn and his preferred flag in a moment but first, to recap, the Australian Republican Movement is asking Canberrans whether they want to keep the current heraldry or use next year's centenary as an opportunity to find a new coat of arms and a new flag. At the moment the ACT's flag brandishes a modified version of the city's 1928 coat of arms on which, among other oddities, the white swan represents white Anglo-Saxon Canberrans and the black one represents Aboriginal black Canberrans.

As a colleague has just pointed out in these pages, ''Canberra's … coat of arms incorporates old-world, aristocratic imagery of crowns, castles, swords and maces.''

There is a Legislative Assembly inquiry going on into miscellaneous aspects of self-government, and the inquirers are said to be examining the republicans' requests to imagine a new coat of arms and flag.


Ostyn yesterday told Gang-gang that he'd always had two strong general reasons for preferring his royal bluebell flag design to the coat-of-arms one forced upon him.

The first was that he knew enough about heraldry to know that the brainwave of taking selected bits and pieces of the existing coat-of-arms and pasting them on to the flag was ''heraldically incorrect'' and a disaster. ''I knew fiddling with a coat of arms was a mistake. Heraldry is a science in its own right. That flag's just not right. [The arms on the flag lacks, among other things, a crown, a portcullis, and something for the swans to stand on.] All that's needed is to take it [the fiddled-with coat of arms] off and put the flower in it's place and the flag is fixed!'' The coat of arms on the flag has had to manage without the crown and portcullis and whatever it is supporting the swans.

The other great virtue of the flower design, he insisted yesterday, is that ''A flag needs to be simple. It needs to be something that children can draw at school. It needs to still be recognisable when its waving in the breeze. This flag is too complicated. It's just not right.''

Those of us, including those trouble-making republicans, who think the coat-of-arms medieval and English and not reflective of who and what we are, are not the first to feel these emotions coursing through their bosoms. Even at the time of its design and acceptance. there were Australians who thought it not nearly Australian enough. Labor leader James Scullin waxed sarcastic in May 1929.

''Bodies such as the Australian Natives Association [of Australian-born white folk] are asking why there is so little typical of Australian sentiment embodied in the design. It was really thoughtful and generous of the designer, with so many imported ideas to cram in, to allot Australia one whole gum tree and a black swan all to herself.'' Actually designer Wylie, an Australian, had given a little, token thought to a more dinky-di design. He explained his thought processes in an essay in the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1929.

''Looking at things from the point of view of an heraldic designer, it is an unfortunate fact that the heraldic ensigns for the Commonwealth are about as crude and inartistic as they could very well be … [because] of the extremely ungainly natural proportions of those two long-suffering creatures, the kangaroo and the emu … Any two living creatures more impossible to balance as supporters on each side of a shield are not to be imagined.''

''The supporters were the most difficult part of the achievement to evolve. Something Australian was required, therefore a lion would not do. The Australian eagle was rejected as being too bellicose; kookaburras, lyre birds, parrots, goannas, mopokes, and platypuses all lacked dignity; kangaroos and emus had been ruled out as overdone … then an inspiration came in the shape of the swans … The black and white swans were thereupon selected as the guardians of the arms and symbolise practically the same idea as do the Aborigine and the white sailor, which support the arms of the city of Sydney.''


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