Vexing vexillology: Sydney’s botched banner

The Sydney flag isn’t just ugly, it’s an explicit recount of the city’s colonial history.

“[The flag] doesn’t mean we owe allegiance,
To a forgotten imperial dream,
We’ve the stars to show where we’re going,
And the old flag to show where we’ve been.” 

– Our Flag by Robin Northover (1986)

In 1989, vexillographer John Vaughan digitised a flag (originally designed by others in 1908) that commits all the cardinal sins of flag design. There is a clear lack of a colour scheme and the imagery is wildly cluttered; reminiscent of a primary school Photoshop project. And yet, it is proudly the official flag of our very own City of Sydney. While we don’t see it very often, the flag is flown atop Sydney Town Hall and the Supreme Court and is used in ceremonial occasions. 

Flags serve an important representative function. Lying at the curious intersection of materiality and abstraction, flags construct meaning in both the communication of symbolic meaning and the physical context in which they are used. These layers coalesce to represent a collective sense of identity, whether that be for a nation or a broader social movement. Vaughan himself recognised this function. He said, “A flag, to me, represented a history book; it told the story of a country or a place…everything about this was in that flag and its constituent devices.” 

So what is the story of Sydney that is being told in its flag? 

Vaughan certainly puts his money where his mouth is – the flag is an explicit recount of the city’s colonial history. In the top left, there are the arms of Thomas Townshend (Lord Sydney) after whom the city is named. Townshend was a British politician who sat in the House of Commons in the 18th Century. In the centre is the posthumous arms of James Cook superimposed on the English Naval Flag. Finally, in the top right are the arms of the first Lord Mayor of Sydney, Sir Thomas Hughes. The ship — a focal point — is said to represent Sydney’s history as a port; in fact, radio show host Wendy Harmer said that it represents that “people travelled across the seas to establish the city of Sydney.” 

Though what is signified in a flag is often obscured, the concept represented in the Sydney flag shows no such subtlety. The exclusion of any Indigenous iconography is ideological, signifying that white Australian history is Australian history. The flag erases the tens and thousands of years of rich Indigenous history to exalt the ostensible glory of the colonial project. Most perniciously, the flag actively celebrates the British invasion of the continent which instigated the genocide and continual oppression of Indigenous people. The English Naval Flag in the centre is said to acknowledge Arthur Phillip’s role in Australia’s foundation, commemorating the moment when the Union Jack was placed on First Nations land and claimed for the British Empire.

For us, It’s important to notice how normalised this colonial ideology has become. As perverse as the flag is upon reflection, the imagery does feel rather apt despite its poor execution. Hence, we mustn’t stop at having the flag changed but also envision a world where such a flag would be unnatural and peculiar, not merely unattractive. In a country where Cathy Freeman flying the Indigenous flag at the Olympics was met with conservative furor, such a world can seem idealistic and unattainable — but that is exactly the post-colonial world we ultimately fight for.

Perhaps, it begins with the flag of the Eora nation rippling in the wind of a Sydney breeze.