CANBERRA - A furious row has erupted over national pride and ownership of the Australian flag following a bid to ban the nation's colours from this week's Australia Day Big Day Out rock concert in Sydney.
Organisers of the BDO want fans to leave the flag at home following its use by gangs to intimidate concertgoers at last year's events, and racially-inspired violence at the southern Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla last summer and at the Australian Tennis Open last week in Melbourne.
But while they said their intention was to prevent the flag being hijacked by racists, the move has outraged political leaders, the Returned Services League and the Sydney Chamber of Commerce. The BDO has already been brought forward a day, to Thursday, to help ease the potential for the kind of trouble that saw racist gangs draping themselves in the flag at Cronulla.
At last year's Sydney BDO, organiser Ken West said, thugs wearing the flag had tried to force other fans to pledge allegiance or face a beating. "The Australian flag was being used as gang colours," West was reported as saying. "It was racism disguised as patriotism and I'm not going to tolerate it."
But the move clashes both with tens of thousands of fans who traditionally wrap large flags around their shoulders, poke pennants in hats and backpacks, or paint the flag on their faces.
This year local band Jet will play with the flag as a background.
The move also conflicts with the normal outpouring of patriotism by Australians, egged on by state and federal governments and political and social leaders. This Australia Day more than 12,500 new citizens are expected to line up with the flag for mass naturalisation ceremonies, along with fireworks displays and a host of nationalistic events and displays.
Prime Minister John Howard made no bones over how he felt about the BDO. "The proposition that the display of the Australian flag should ever be banned anywhere in Australia is offensive and it will be to millions of Australians."
Nor did he accept the proposition the a ban on the flag would head off trouble. "Flags don't have legs and arms. If anyone was breaking the law at Cronulla, or breaks the law at any time in the future, they should be dealt with by the authorities. This event is on property owned by the New South Wales Government, so the NSW Government has the power to make absolutely certain that this stupid ban does not in any way get implemented."
An equally outraged NSW Premier, Maurice Iemma, already had this in mind, setting lawyers to work yesterday on possible legal means to ensure flags will appear. He said fans were likely to make that happen anyway.
"It will not take the threat of intervention by the Government for the organisers to see, firstly common sense, and to allow people who want to display their pride in their country. Kids will have the tattoo on their nose, they'll have the T-shirts and they'll fly the flag."
Federal Opposition leader Kevin Rudd told Channel Nine the BDO organisers had made a mistake. "Organisers have got it plain wrong when they try to hide our flag as if it's some symbol of shame. It's not. We should fly it with pride."
But while saying the flag had been "discouraged" - not banned - organisers were yesterday not backing down. A statement on the BDO website said it had never been their intention to disrespect the symbolism of the Australian, or any other, flag.
"We are not banning the flag but are simply discouraging its use for anti-social purposes. There has been an increased incidence of flags being brandished aggressively and this has led to increased tension.
"Our only intention in discouraging this activity ... is to ensure that our patrons are not subjected to this aggressive behaviour. With all this in mind and the aim to create a happy, peaceful musical event, organisers would like to request that fans please leave their flags at home."