Confusing. Irrelevant. Ugly.

These are just some of the criticisms lobbed at Australia’s city flags (from the tiny slice of the population that even know these things exist).

There’s our national flag. Then there are state and territory flags. But Australia’s larger cities, along with a selection of its smaller ones, also have their own flags.

Unlike in some overseas cities, our city flags are hidden, used rarely in an official capacity and even less so by the public.

You’re probably not familiar with the blinged-up swans of the Perth flag or the very uncomfortable-looking sheep on both the Adelaide and Melbourne flags, for example.

But there are Australians who believe our city flags are worth knowing, debating and maybe changing.

And in Sydney, a recent stoush where its little-known flag was “confiscated” has triggered bigger discussions about flags and symbolism — and who we are as Australians today.

Hold on, my city has a flag?

It’s likely.

Around two-thirds of Australians live in a flag-flying (or at least flag-owning) capital city, while other places from Wollongong to Launceston also have one.

Tony Burton knows these flags well. He’s the editor of flags journal Crux Australis and author of Vexillogistics: An Illustrated and Practical Guide to Flag Design.

“Why do Australian cities have flags? In short, so that they have got some clothes to wear. That is, to say they have a ticket of identity,” he says. 

So what makes for a good city flag?

Central Queensland University historian Benjamin Jones was the lead researcher of the Alternative Australian Flag Survey.

“Vexillologists [or people who study flags] often promote a series of principles for a ‘good’ flag design including that it should be a relatively simple design that a child could draw from memory, have only two or three colours, no lettering, and be distinctive and meaningful,” he says.

Few, if any, of Australia’s city flags tick all of these boxes.

“[But] city flags, like all flags, are a form of art and art is always subjective,” Dr Jones says.

The ‘good’?

The Brisbane flag was adopted in 1947 and, like many Australian city flags, is based on the city’s coat of arms.

Brisbane’s flag: Beautiful or bad?(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

No, the yellow symbols aren’t pretzels. They’re references to Sir Thomas Brisbane, the sixth governor of NSW after whom the city was named.

Sir Thomas was a soldier in the Staffordshire regiment and the pretzel-like symbols are Stafford knots. The white stars also relate to Sir Thomas, as he was a keen astronomer.

And there are three caducei, or staffs with two serpents topped by wings, which actually represent commerce (not medicine).

Despite the complex design, Mr Burton is a fan.

“I rather like it … This one is redolent of the highly-decorated civic flags that you find in Europe,” he says.

But this comes with a very important caveat about busyness in flags.

“It’s got to be good, clear, attractive busyness. Not clutter for clutter’s sake … Simple is always best,” he says.

Which takes us across the Bass Strait.

Hobart’s flag is one of the simplest. It features a slightly squished red lion, also used in the Tasmanian state flag, and a six-pointed star with wavy rays, which are from the coat of arms of Lord Robert Hobart, the city’s namesake.

Hobart’s flag has been used since the 1950s.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

“Out of all of [Australia’s] city flags, I think it is the best,” Mr Burton says.

“It is simple … It’s very upper class, derivative from Pommy land, but it is a very good design. I would give that the top marks.”

Beyond the capital cities, there’s one flag that may divide opinion (depending on your thoughts of a yellow-green-blue combination and letters made of wheat): Wagga Wagga.

Adopted in 1965, the flag features stalks of wheat laid out in the shape of two Ws, a blue wavy line signifying the Murrumbidgee River and a merino ram’s head — referencing the city’s industries.

Wagga Wagga’s flag is officially square.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

“It’s one of the few [Australian] rural cities that actually has a flag,” Mr Burton says.

The ‘bad’?

Three capital city flags are designed around the cross of St George, the patron saint of England.

Melbourne’s flag features the cross with a royal crown. Then, in four quadrants are four elements of Melbourne’s 19th century economy: A fleece, a bull, a ship and a whale.

Tony Burton is no fan of Melbourne’s flag.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

“It’s rather cluttered. It’s more like a coat of arms,” Mr Burton says.

“Not so marvellous, Melbourne.”

Perth’s flag has the St George Cross and the city’s coat of arms in the middle, with two black swans wearing crowns in a fairly confusing way.

Black swans feature in much Western Australia paraphernalia. (ABC RN: Anna Levy)

“Westies — you could do better,” Mr Burton says.

Adelaide’s flag is similar to Melbourne’s, with another cross of St George and industry symbols in four quadrants: A ship, a fleece, a bull’s head and wheat.

Adelaide’s flag is also based on the city’s coat of arms.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

Mr Burton gives this one another “black mark”.

It ‘does not represent all that we are’

Dating back to 1908, Sydney’s flag has an array of elements taken from the city’s original coat of arms.

It includes (deep breath): At the top, the arms of Thomas Townshend, Viscount Sydney after whom the city is named; the English naval flag overlaid with features of James Cook’s arms; and the arms of the first lord mayor of Sydney, Thomas Hughes. Below is a ship, because of Sydney’s importance as a maritime port.

Sydney’s flag has been making news.(ABC RN: Anna Levy)

But chewing over a flag’s aesthetics is only part of the city flag story.

Australia’s city flags were designed at a very different time to today — and almost always forefront British colonists and colonisation.

And so Sydney is one of the few cities currently having a debate about its flag.

“The City of Sydney flag is archaic. The design bears little relevance to today’s City of Sydney community,” says Yvonne Weldon, an independent councillor and the first Aboriginal councillor in the city’s 180-year history.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore says that the city’s flag is “at the very least, problematic” and “does not represent all that we are”.

“[The flag] contains no acknowledgement of First Nations people … [and] it centres colonial maritime history, the impact of which is particularly poignant here in Sydney — the first site of invasion,” she says.

Because of this, the City of Sydney no longer uses its flag. And the city is in the process of reviewing its symbols and emblems, including the flag.

But this has not been without drama.

The Sydney stoush

Not everyone agrees the Sydney flag should be mothballed while the city figures out what to do with it.

Liberal councillor Lyndon Gannon used the flag in the background of a December 2023 online council meeting. This prompted council staff to take the item “for safe storage in the city’s civic collection”.

Cr Gannon says the flag was “confiscated”, and the whole affair ended up on the front pages of the tabloid press.

However, Cr Gannon says he’s not against reviewing the Sydney flag — rather he was “upset” at what was done.

“I think it is time the City of Sydney flag is updated,” he says.

“Sydney, and Australia, have three great epochs: The pre-colonisation Indigenous period, the British settlement period and the post-war migrant era. For the flag to only represent the British epoch is wrong; it doesn’t represent who we really are.

“It is important that the city, as Australia’s only global city, manages the renewal of these symbols in a considered, reflective and timely manner. To hide them in shame without a timeline for renewal sends the wrong message.”

‘Symbols matter’

In some overseas cities, the city flag plays a much more prominent role.

There’s the flag of the US city of Chicago, for example. Vexillologists often point to it as the gold standard of city flags.

The flag, dating back to 1917, has two light blue bars on a white background, with four red stars that represent four significant events in the city’s history: The founding of Fort Dearborn, the Great Chicago Fire and the hosting of two international expositions.

To Mr Burton, this is a flag with “panache”.

“It is extremely popular … Chicagoans are extremely proud of it. You see it on coffee mugs and on t-shirts.”

Chicago’s flag can be seen all over the US city.(Getty: Pgiam)

So should Australians take a different view of our city flags? And is it time to change them?

Cr Weldon is sceptical.

“I don’t think [Sydney] needs a flag … I think there’s more pressing concerns than redesigning a flag that is no longer in use,” she says.

Central Queensland University’s Dr Jones has another perspective.

“City flags are a strange phenomenon,” he says.

Like national flags, “their job is to represent people and to foster a sense of community and civic pride”. However in Australia they are “almost never seen outside of council functions”, he says.

“Given that city flags play such a minor role in civic life in the 21st century, I understand that many might respond to the whole [Sydney flag] debate with a shrug of the shoulders.

“Nevertheless, I do think that symbols matter and if a new flag in Sydney … or anywhere else is more likely to be inclusive and inspire civic pride and a sense of a community, then it is a change worth pursuing.”

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