For 19 days a year (January 26, Sorry Day, Reconciliation Week and Naidoc Week) an Aboriginal flag is taken out of storage to replace the NSW state flag, one of two flags that ordinarily fly on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It’s a symbolic gesture, meant to pay tribute to Australia’s Aboriginal population. But local Kamilaroi woman Cheree Toka doesn’t think 19 days is enough. She wants it to be permanent.
“The Harbour Bridge is one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks,” Toka tells Broadsheet. “It’s important for the flag to fly on that bridge alongside the Australian flag for [locals and] international visitors to see a representation of the true Australia, and to be able to spark a conversation about the Aboriginal people and the true history and culture of Australia.”
Toka first started campaigning to raise the flag over the bridge in 2017, with a petition on Change.org that has so far gained 163,432 digital signatures. She managed to get 10,000 physical signatures so she could take her fight to NSW parliament, where parliamentarians have used myriad excuses – from the financial to the structural, to flag protocols – to not install the flag permanently.
The latest excuse from the government is that it would be too costly to install a third flagpole atop the bridge. Refusing to back down, Toka has very pragmatically found out how much it would take to cover those costs ($300,000) and has gone about raising the sum herself. After three weeks, her campaign has hit the $20,000 mark.
“At the end of the day, raising money shows the Australian government that the Australian people want the Aboriginal flag flying every day, not just 19 days of the year,” Toka says. “And that’s the true message we want to resonate with the Australian government.”
Toka says that though flying the flag on the bridge is symbolic, it will highlight the very serious issues Indigenous Australians still face hundreds of years after colonisation. “It doesn’t help the real issues in rural Indigenous communities,” she says. “But what it does do is spark that conversation around the in-depth issues that First Nations people in Australia are facing.
“The Aboriginal flag reminds us that this country has history beyond European arrival,” she says. “For me and other Aboriginal people, as well as for non-Indigenous people, it can be used as an educational tool. Personally, it’s important to me so my children can grow up feeling safe and cultured in their own country, and for my family to be proud of who they are. And for the people of Australia to know about the true ancestral history of the country they call home.”
Toka says non-Indigenous Australians have been supportive of the campaign and are often shocked the flag isn’t already there permanently. “They’re so baffled at the fact that it isn’t, that it’s taken down after 19 days of it flying a year. As soon as I talk about my campaign, people say, ‘I didn’t notice, I thought it was flying there all the time.’”