12 November 2020

How Clothing The Gap is working to close the gap and free the flag

As part of our Reconciliation Action Plan, we see it as fundamental to form relationships with the First Nations communities and to champion Indigenous businesses in our network and client base. We spoke with Laura Thompson and Sarah Sheridan from Clothing The Gap and Spark Health Australia about the work they are doing to free the Aboriginal flag from copyright restrictions so it can be ‘flown, worn and used as a symbol of pride, unity and a collective identity’.

Q1. Tell us about Clothing The Gap.

Clothing The Gap is a Victorian Aboriginal-owned and led social enterprise. We are a fresh and dynamic fashion label managed by health professionals that celebrates Aboriginal people and culture.

We unite Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people through fashion and cause by producing merch with a meaning and encourage people to wear their values on their tee.

Clothing The Gap is a play on the words ‘Closing the Gap’, which is an Australian Government health initiative to help close the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous Australians. Co-Founded by Gunditjmara woman, Laura Thompson, and non-Indigenous health advocate, Sarah Sheridan, Clothing The Gap believes fashion can drive real change in this country while funding and supporting meaningful impact.

A little-known fact is that Clothing The Gap is actually really new, only becoming its own social enterprise in March 2020. Previously, the label was operating under Spark Health, the co-founders Health Promotion brand, and held the name ‘Spark Merch’. Spark Merch produced training singlets and jumpers as participation incentives for the Aboriginal Community health and wellbeing programs.

The dream was to ‘one day’ be able to sell enough merchandise to self-fund the impact work in the Aboriginal Community. We are so excited that this has become a reality thanks to our incredible community of supporters!

Q2. What are some of your signature programs at the Clothing The Gap Foundation? What do these hope to achieve?

As a social-enterprise, Clothing The Gap proudly re-invests in creating social change that promotes equity so that Aboriginal people feel seen and heard. As health professionals, we understand the importance and impact of holistic health and wellbeing, that being seen, heard and valued in the world plays a role in an individual’s and communities physical health and wellness.

We are currently delivering this impact work through our virtual run/walk event series in enabling pricing equity at registration and donating 100% of profits from the events to the Clothing The Gap Foundation.

By building in registration pricing equity we have been able to increase Aboriginal participation with over 25% of total event registrations coming from the Aboriginal Community.

With over 11,000 people registering for RunRona and the NAIDOC Virtual March, we’re stoked that thousands of Aboriginal people have stayed active and connected with others during the COVID lockdowns through the Clothing The Gap virtual events.

The Clothing The Gap Foundation facilitates a program called ‘Mob Run This’ to support staff and Community leaders from Aboriginal Community Organisations or Groups to run their own local event alongside the national virtual run/walk event.

‘Mob Run This’ is an online toolkit of customisable resources including social media collateral, flyers, registration support, social media and event tip sheets. The aim is for our team of experienced health promotion and Aboriginal Community engagement specialists to do all of the heavy lifting so that legends on the ground doesn’t have to spend their time recreating marketing material and can get on with doing what they do best – engaging and motivating their own Aboriginal Community to be active together.

Q3. Clothing The Gap have founded the ‘Free the Flag’ movement. Who ‘owns’ the Aboriginal flag and who has the right to reproduce it?

The Aboriginal Flag was designed by Harold Thomas, a Luritja man, in 1972. The flag was proclaimed as an official flag of Australia in 1995 and Harold was awarded copyright in 1997 by the Federal Court after Harold’s authorship was challenged.

Today, there are three licensee holders to the Aboriginal Flag: Gifts Mate, WAM Clothing and Flagworld. These are three non-Indigenous businesses who each hold world-wide exclusive agreements to reproduce the Aboriginal Flag in their respective fields, profiting off Aboriginal peoples’ identity and love for their flag.

WAM Clothing holds the worldwide exclusive licensing agreement on clothing, physical, digital and print media. This means that every single time a school, health service, business, organisation or sports team would like to proudly wear the Aboriginal Flag on their uniform, they must ask permission from WAM Clothing, and most likely pay an extra 20% of their merchandise cost to be able to do so.

Free the Flag graphic

Q4. Why is there such a battle over these issues at the moment?

The Aboriginal Community wants to celebrate the Aboriginal flag without asking for permission or paying to do so. The Free the Flag campaign is advocating for free celebration, essentially a public license to the Aboriginal Flag.

The Aboriginal Community deserves the same rights all Australians enjoy to the Australian flag – this is about flag equality and flag rights. The current licensing agreements and thus the control of the Aboriginal flag is distressing for the Aboriginal Community and as a result people are using it less.

People are nervous about putting the flag on their uniforms, logos, artwork and more. At a time where we should be seeing more Aboriginal flags in the world, we are seeing less. At present, the Aboriginal Flag is disappearing from the national landscape.

The Aboriginal Flag should stay as a representation of pride, resistance and celebration of culture, not be shackled and controlled. This is yet another hardship and reminder of the oppression still present in Australia today.

Q5. How does Clothing The Gap come into this debate?

In June 2019, Spark Health, trading as Spark Merch then Clothing The Gap, created jumpers and t-shirts featuring the Aboriginal Flag. Not long after these products were released, we received our first Cease and Desist from WAM Clothing instructing us to cease selling our flag products within three business days.

We complied and launched the Free the Flag campaign to bring awareness to the issue and start the wheels in motion for change. The campaign quickly gained momentum and more and more people reached out to us sharing their similar experience, right across the country.

Since then, almost 150,000 people have signed our Pride Not Profit petition calling for change, all 18 AFL clubs stood alongside the campaign in the recent Sir Doug Nicholls Round and the Senate established a Select Committee to investigate the issue.

Q6. What does the Free the Flag movement aim to achieve?

The Free the Flag Campaign aims are:

  • to Free the Flag from its current licensing agreements;
  • fo enable celebration of the Aboriginal Flag without asking for permission or paying to do so;
  • for the consumer to have freedom of choice from whom they purchase their flag products; and
  • to not have to pay more (royalty and a license fee) for Aboriginal Flag products.

This will enable a free flag where Harold Thomas is acknowledged as the flag creator and remains the copyright holder but has an exclusive license with the Commonwealth. Effectively, ensuring a free public license to the flag for all Australians to celebrate, reproduce use and sell the Aboriginal flag in accordance with the Flags Act 1953 (Cth), and essentially more Aboriginal flags in the world.

Infographic: what does a free flag look like?

Q7. Artist Harold Thomas has previously said, ‘As it is my common law right and Aboriginal heritage right, as with many other Aboriginals, I can choose who I like to have a licence agreement to manufacture goods which have the Aboriginal flag on it.’ What is your response to Harold Thomas’ statement?

The Aboriginal flag was created as a flag, for flag use – for pride not profit.

Flags are a countries most public pieces of property and should remain as that, not an item for commercial exploitation.

The Aboriginal Community has had an implied license to the Aboriginal flag for over 40 years and are the ones who gave rise to its value, to its significance in this Country. This notion of implied license for free and public use was cemented when the flag was proclaimed as an official flag of the country in 1995.

The Aboriginal flag is not a piece of artwork on a wall to be reproduced with fees attached – it is flown, worn and used as a symbol of pride, unity and a collective identity.

Want more?

Click here to learn more about the Free the Flag campaign and to add your voice to the movement.

Wear you values on your tee with a campaign shirt.

Put your feet in to action and join us for our next virtual run/walk event, Connect to Country.

Lawyer Gemma Shaw interviewed Laura Thompson and Sarah Sheridan for this Q&A.