The ACT government is inviting ideas from the community on the design of a territory coat of arms. We should grab the opportunity with enthusiasm.
Following a bipartisan report from a Legislative Assembly committee, the government is looking to move ahead and implement its recommendations. In part the need arises from the fact that at self-government, insufficient care was taken to clarify the legality of the new government simply appropriating to itself the Canberra coat of arms.
In fact and in law, the city of Canberra and the jurisdiction of the ACT are separate entities. That confusion, however, now presents the ACT community with a unique opportunity to design its own statement of identity in the form of a new coat of arms.
Questions concerning the appropriateness of the Canberra coat of arms have been raised for almost a decade. The principal objection related to the appropriateness of the symbolism used in those "arms" to express the character of the ACT community or the nature and landscape that defines it as a place. There is now the chance to address both of those concerns and, with community engagement, design a coat of arms that gives true expression to the people and place of the ACT region.
For those who might consider coats of arms archaic and irrelevant in today's world, the fact is that they remain the accepted form of visual currency for "thumbnailing" the attributes and aspirations of communities at civic, state and national governance levels. While they conform to certain formulations, they are capable of creative and relevant design interpretation that is both meaningful and visually attractive. That is now the challenge for the ACT community and, perhaps especially, the ACT design community.
This is completely appropriate, as the push for a new coat of arms has been a people-driven project from the start. In 2013 a group of Canberra citizens, led by but not limited to committed republicans, suggested that the imagery in the Canberra coat of arms does not do justice to the community we have become. It proposed that a worthwhile outcome of the centenary year would be a revised Canberra coat of arms, or perhaps the correction of the historical oversight of the ACT being the only jurisdiction in Australia with no coat of arms.
In the self-generated community discussions that followed, the ACT Heraldry Special Interest Group enthusiastically supported the latter option. The Naval Association and other ex-service groups raised objections to any change being made to the Canberra coat of arms due to its links with HMAS Canberra, which sank in 1942 with the loss of 84 sailors and airmen.
They did, however, urge the government to proceed with the design of an ACT coat of arms. From all this input a revised proposal to pursue the design and adoption of an ACT coat of arms was agreed by all involved - a striking example of community self-consultation and consensus building. A proposal around which all could unite. Following persistent advocacy, the Legislative Assembly agreed to refer the issue to a committee and the result was the bipartisan recommendation to proceed with the design and adoption of a territory coat of arms.
The ACT government has now announced a process for community input and engagement in this process. As a community we have already done much of the work, with the selection and adoption of floral, faunal and, most recently, a mammal emblem. However, it is not a case of having a multitude of emblems and symbols - good design principles would point towards simplicity and connection, elegantly expressed.
That said it is important to seek ideas from across the community. We will all have suggestions based on our perspectives, mental and visual, and our own sense of place. For me, some expression of the Brindabella ranges would seem appropriate, as that geographical feature is indeed the backdrop of our lives. What is important is that the community is engaged at various stages and that the input is valued, evaluated and translated into a properly crafted brief for competent design professionals to finalise.
This is the sort of process that Canberra does well. The ACT may be Australia's smallest jurisdiction, but it has a large presence and influence on the nation's imagination. We can now identify those symbols that express who we are and speak to us, and of us, as a community and place. Are we truly confident, bold and ready? We would be mad to pass up the opportunity.
- The community is invited to submit their ideas and suggestions via the ACT government's Your Say web portal.
- Terry Fewtrell is a former deputy chairman of the Australian Republican Movement.