The ACT coat of arms by Lenore Bass.
Symbols are important. And national and civic symbols are particularly important.
Symbols convey what distinguishes a person, place or people, and their clarity and relevance are critical. The gang-gang cockatoo and native bluebell are widely recognised and much loved as symbols of the ACT. Sadly, however, Canberra and the ACT are poorly served by the symbolism of the Canberra coat of arms, which is clearly confusing, inappropriate and arguably demeaning. This is something we should rectify in our centenary year.
With the exception of the two swans, the imagery and symbols used in the coat of arms are predominantly alien to the modern Canberra. Indeed, they have little connection to Australia or its environment. Images of sword/mace (crossed), a castle, two crowns and a portcullis, along with other items that are not readily discernible, say nothing about who we are today or aspire to be.
The tree, seemingly imprisoned behind the portcullis, is meant to be a gum tree. The motto is also inappropriate for the only republican-voting jurisdiction in the country.
The coat of arms was designed by C.R. Wylie in 1928 at the request of the Federal Capital Commission. He wrote at the time in The Sydney Morning Herald that he had used largely European and British symbols and avoided local fauna and images as these ''lacked dignity''.
It is also relevant that the coat of arms is of the city of Canberra and, according to local heraldic experts, it relates technically to the Commonwealth or parliamentary (triangle) functions rather than the broader city that Canberra has become. Certainly, it is not an ACT coat of arms, as the ACT is the only jurisdiction in the country not to have a coat of arms.
There is little in the Canberra coat of arms design that accurately or realistically reflects the city that Canberra has become - a modern Australian city, set on the Limestone Plains against the backdrop of the Brindabella Ranges, a lively, multicultural city with an educated and engaged community, looking confidently to the future. In simple terms, the symbols convey an identity that is not us. They are neither Australian nor Canberran.
Perhaps just as significantly, they represent a great lost opportunity to express in design terms what is perhaps Canberra's most distinguishing feature among Australian cities - that it is a city immersed in, rather than imposed upon, the landscape.
Much of the spirit of the centenary has been about honouring and rejoicing in the Griffin legacy of landscape design. We should promote such distinctive characteristics rather than imported, irrelevant and insensitive stereotypes. If we don't rectify this, we will have failed to fulfil the real intent and meaning in our centenary celebrations.
We need symbols or a coat of arms expressing who we are and speaking of and to us in meaningful terms.
Those who scoff at such an objective might find it illustrative to look at the content and style of the Northern Territory coat of arms, which proudly and sensitively depicts the people, history and landscape of the territory. Surely, the citizens of Canberra and the ACT can do at least as well, if not better.
As an engaged and educated community, Canberra is well equipped to undertake the sort of community consultation needed to determine the symbolism we may prefer in a new coat of arms. But there are a few threshold questions to consider. Should we seek to replace the existing outdated city of Canberra coat of arms or should we direct our energies into designing a specific ACT coat of arms that would, in effect, supplant the existing Canberra arms? Or should we do both?
Another question relates to the formalities of coats of arms and their authorisation. Currently, there is no heraldic authority in Australia for coats of arms. This is seemingly an item of unfinished or undesired business left over from the formalisation of the Queen as the Queen of Australia. In other words, the only authority to officially issue a new coat of arms is technically the English heraldic authority.
That said, there is no reason why the ACT government could not simply adopt a new set of arms (either for Canberra or the ACT) by a simple resolution in the Legislative Assembly.
So another question is: Do we decide on what we want and adopt it or do we demean ourselves by seeking approval of an English authority for something that has nothing to do with them? That seems to me a bit like seeking English approval of the team we select to contest the Ashes.
Whatever may be the community's and the ACT government's preferences on such matters, the fact is that we need a coat of arms that is meaningful to us.
The process for achieving this would be for local media and the ACT government to facilitate a genuine community consultation process. Such a deposit of thinking could then form the basis of a brief for a heraldic artist to design a coat of arms that appropriately reflects our thinking.
This being Canberra's centenary year, it is the perfect time for such a process. It would be a fitting legacy of the centenary and an effective gift to future generations, providing clarity as to our identity and aspirations. I would be surprised if we could not do this and do it well.
Terry Fewtrell is a Canberra citizen with a particular interest in national and civic symbols. He is president of the Wattle Day Association and a former convener of the Australian Republican Movement in the ACT.