Time to celebrate city's multicultural identity

Canberra's rich tapestry needs to be acknowledged on city's coat of arms, writes Hatice Sitki.

Isn't it time to move that yellow box to the front of Canberra's coat of arms in this centenary year? That gum tree has been hidden since 1928. Surely, C.R. Wylie must have had yellow box in his mind when he designed Canberra's coat of arms? Let us assume that ''hidden'' gum tree is a yellow box (Eucalyptus melliodora) chosen by Wylie to represent Canberra as the nation's bush capital. But if we take the symbolism of the yellow box to the present day it becomes the symbol of Canberra's multicultural identity because both are hidden. Yellow box - locally sourced - was chosen to make the spine of the Legislative Assembly's mace and it is carved with royal bluebells (Wahlenbergia gloriosa), the floral emblem of Canberra. These two make up Canberra's unofficial and native symbols.

Canberra's multicultural identity is hidden because it is not formally acknowledged on its coat of arms. Canberra, like the NSW government site, seems to have two ''company logos'' simultaneously on the go. There is the formal one, designed by Wylie in 1928 (and it has remained unchanged since then) to represent the newly formed city's perceived national identity: white, British, monarchical, European in the eight symbols on it; making it mono-cultural rather than inclusive or multicultural.

These eight or rather 11 symbols (if you count St Edward's Crown twice) are mace, sword, St Edward's Crown, white swan, white rose, castle and a Latin phrase. The black swan common to the eastern coast of Australia was chosen to represent all of Canberra's indigenous population and heritage.

Wylie wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald explaining the reasons he chose these European/British symbols to be the external identity of the city. Wylie explained why he had rejected other Australian symbols as ''being too bellicose; kookaburras, lyre birds, parrots, goannas, mopokes, and platypuses all lacked dignity; kangaroos and emus had been ruled out as overdone, and there seemed to be too little left of Australia's fauna …''. We were let down by Wylie, who thought our coat of arms had to appear ''British'' to be able to gain approval.

On NSW's government website there are two ''company logos''. A bright, red image of a waratah flower above NSW's acronym makes up its ''unacknowledged'' but adopted company symbol/logo. Similarly, Canberra's second ''unofficial'' company logo is made up of two formally accepted flora and fauna emblems, and one unacknowledged arboreal emblem. Royal bluebell and a gang-gang cockatoo make up Canberra's adopted emblems.

The Legislative Assembly's website, it seems, has unofficially adopted the royal bluebell as its company logo. Yep, that yellow box makes up Canberra's third unofficial and unrecognised company ''emblem'' or logo. The informal adoption of these ''national and native'' symbols reinforces Canberra's formal cultural identity.


A pair of gang-gang cockatoos enjoys the prime spot on the ACT Parks and Conservation Service's company logo, and is stamped on their rangers' trucks and uniforms. They are also adopted as the ''faunal emblem'' for Canberra City. Yellow box as the Legislative Assembly's mace symbolises its blend of past, present and future and makes up the third collective group ''unofficial'' symbol of Canberra.

Wylie's choice for adopting these European/British heraldic symbols can be akin to the many introduced floral and faunal species into Australian environment. Some of these introductions have worked; some have had disastrous results. Regardless of what the final outcome of these introduced species has been on the Australian environment, they are now all part of Canberra's floral and faunal landscape. Ditto for Canberra's white, British, European, royal, Indian, Tongan or Russian multicultural identity to its religious diversity from Judaism to Sikhism: they all form part of a sum that makes up the whole.

In other words, they all make Canberra the multicultural city that it is today. These multitudes of diverse cultures have all blended over 100 years to make Canberra a multicultural City. Canberra's Multicultural Festival celebrates this diasporic diversity blending. The festival's activities are an open and visible acknowledgement of Canberra's vibrant, cultural diversity. And of course the Canberra Gold Award and the Citizen of the Year Award are regularly given to people from diverse cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Another silent reinforcement of multiculturalism in Canberra.

Presumably Canberra's official motto of being ''For the People'' means just that: for all the people of Canberra? The clear but unsaid implication of this phrase is that it represents all the people of Canberra and thus accepting their cultural, ethnic, religious, language diversity. The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly does not read out or request for members to recite the Lord's Prayer as it is done at the Federal Parliament. Instead, Members of the Assembly are given a choice to ''pray'' or to ''reflect'' on their responsibility to the people of Canberra.

Doesn't the Speaker's request acknowledge Canberra's multicultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic identity? If the Legislative Assembly can accept and have two sets of company logos, isn't it time to blend both into one that represents all the people? Surely, time has come in this centenary year to have one unified coat of arms that represents Canberra as the multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and diverse city that it is?

Dr Hatice Sitki is a national myths and symbols consultant.