Howard’s Big Day Out Flag Bash

Mark Seymour remarks on Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his flag antics.

Author: Mark Seymour.

Date: 29 January 2007.

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Just exactly what did Prime Minister John Howard mean when he accused Big Day Out organizers of running “their own political agenda”?

Ken West, one of the Big Day Out partners, professed concern last week that certain individuals might use the Aussie flag as a cover for racist and gang related violence at the Big Day Out over the Australia Day weekend. He consequently “requested” Big Day Out punters not to bring flags along to the show. Howard immediately reacted to West’s request by making the claim that West had some other hidden motive, a “political” one at that.

The whole saga got a good run for a few days and even though it blew over pretty quickly it lasted long enough to allow Howard’s reaction to transform a minor issue of security into something much larger.

Howard’s claim that West had a “political agenda” was based on the implication that anyone who dared to discourage Australian youth from wearing the symbol of our national pride must’ve been acting in an underhand and deceitful manner. It was our beloved flag after all and what a sorry state of affairs we’d be in if the youth of this country were unable to publicly express their joy and delight as citizens of the “best country on earth.” And what was even more outrageous to the prime minister was that West dared to smear the dignity of our flag by associating it with something as dark and sinister as RACISM! Howard was indignant. “That stupid ban” he said. (How dare they? you could almost hear him huffing.)

Hold on a second! Let’s just take Howard’s comment at face value. He may have had a point. There is after all, nothing wrong with kids waving Aussie flags. But on the other hand if you really sit down and think about it, what conceivable political agenda could Ken West have been running? It wasn’t as if he was standing for parliament for the other mob. In fact, West could easily be a Howard acolyte as far I can tell and let’s face it, he’s no slouch with money either which is clearly a skill that would meet with Howard’s approval.

You could argue that the Big Day Out is a shining example of all that is good and forward looking about the new and improved Australia that Howard keeps banging on about. It’s a huge financial success and is definitely not known for giving oxygen to leftist entertainers with overt ideological messages.. The Big Day Out is about FUN, pure and simple! What’s more, you have to ask yourself, why would Ken West willingly invite upon himself nothing less than a media shit-storm? He’s a successful entrepreneur who runs a music festival. So where’s the “political agenda” in that?

Incidentally, at no stage during the saga was it clearly stated that a “ban” would be put in place. Punters were “requested” not to bring flags. The word “ban”, or “stupid ban” (Howard likes to use the word “stupid” a lot,) was Howard’s terminology, which again was a subtle escalation of the facts. Not only was there no “ban” but there wasn’t a “stupid” one either.

So where does that leave us Ladies and Gents, as we try to detect “political” urges in the dark recesses of Ken West’s mind? Guess what? All we really know, after painstakingly eliminating every other possible motive, is that Ken West was concerned purely and simply with “crowd control,” an issue that lies at the very heart of large scale rock entertainment. In all fairness to the prime minister, “crowd control” is something he would know diddly squat about unless he was being advised by experts, which perhaps he was in this case. This tends to make you wonder how spontaneous Howard’s outburst really was.

The Big Day Out is one of the few major events of recent years, which the prime minister hasn’t attended. Unlike the soccer or the Commonwealth Games, it isn’t a sporting contest so Howard’s presence there could never be warranted as an endorsement of an Australian victory. There is no political leverage for Howard in attending the Big Day Out but the fact remains that it has become a mainstream institution of massive proportions despite his absence. In many ways, the “Big Day Out” is a power vacuum for the prime minister. There are a lot of Australians cheering for something the prime minister can’t easily identify with and probably doesn’t understand.

So why would Ken West think he had a potential problem on his hands, (apart from Howard’s ire)? Well, you only have to caste your mind back to last year’s Australia Day weekend and consider what happened in Cronulla to find a reason. On that weekend, the Aussie flag was brought into heinous disrepute by individuals hell bent on using it as an excuse to commit some very nasty acts of violence and dare I say it, (Dare I use the “R” word?) ….RACISM. OUCH!

If a bunch of blokes walk around in a public place with Aussie flags draped over his shoulders yelling “Lebbos out” you’re kind of going to draw the conclusion that A: the blokes are racist, and B: they’re using the symbol of our national pride to reinforce that racism. Now at best, some people might find this kind of behaviour mildly disturbing but others would be terrified, especially if the blokes are drunk and prepared to use their fists and feet to beat up “lebbos” or “Lebbo” looking types.

On top of this, there were reports that similar behaviour took place at last year’s Big Day Out, although it was of a more general nature. Individuals who expressed their lack of willingness to “kiss the flag” were physically threatened by groups of drunk flag clad idiots.

This is pretty confronting stuff ladies and gentlemen, and unfortunately our beloved flag got well and truly caught up in it. Now given the level of responsibility the Big Day Out organizers actually have, what with the safety of hundreds of thousands of punters, let alone the astronomical public liability insurance premiums they’re forking out, (a purely fiscal concern I’ll admit, but something I’m sure Howard would completely relate to,) if I was in their shoes and had witnessed the sort of racist behaviour that went down in Cronulla this time last year, I’d be a little bit anxious about blokes bearing flags myself.

Once again, Howard set himself up as the principle defender of the nation’s image. Although the Big Day Out organizers were solely concerned with security, they were instantly demonised by the prime minister. Aussie flag bearers are now the good guys wherever and whenever, and the Big Day Out organizers are the bad guys. Simple really. Howard had the ultimate political toy to play with: By exploiting the Australian flag he has become the best friend Australian youth ever had. What’s more, The Big Day Out is now at last within the orbit of Howard’s mystique. Kids brought Aussie flags in their thousands and many must have been thanking John Howard for letting them know it was okay. Now that’s a vote winner.





My view, in brief:

I believe that waving the Australian flag should be encouraged. The problem at the moment is that groups of people with rather disturbing views have hijacked the flag. The challenge for moderates and progressives is to hijack the flag back as a symbol of unity, diversity, mateship, and other honourable aspects of Australian society.

— Stuart Fenech