Fears of race clashes on Monday led organizers of Australia’s biggest outdoor rock concert to bar fans from carrying the national flag, sparking a furious reaction from the country’s prime minister and war veterans.
After fights between ethnic Croatian and Serbian fans outside the Australian Open tennis tournament last week and 2005 race clashes on Sydney’s beaches, Big Day Out concert organizers said Australia’s flag was a “gang color” which could incite hatred.
“It was racism disguised as patriotism and I’m not going to tolerate it,” event producer Ken West told Australian newspapers.
The concert Web site said the flag was not banned outright, but security staff were “discouraging its use.”
The Big Day Out in Sydney and other Australian cities has in the past drawn some of the world’s biggest bands, including Pearl Jam, The Ramones, The Foo Fighters and Chemical Brothers, to play on multiple stages watched by thousands of fans.
This year’s concert sold out in hours and headline band Jet planned to take the stage with a black-and-white version of the normally red, blue and white flag on set.
West said he was disturbed at last week’s Melbourne tennis clashes and race riots on Sydney’s Cronulla Beach just over a year ago in which some rioters draped flags across their shoulders.
“The Australian flag was being used as gang colors,” he said. The usual staging of the concert on the January 26 Australia Day national holiday had already been moved forward one day to avoid any nationalist fervor.
Prime Minister John Howard, whose government has demanded new migrants to respect vague Australian values such as “mateship” and “fair go” for all, condemned the flag prohibition.
“The event organizers should not ram their peculiar political views down the throats of young Australians who are only interested in a good day out,” Howard said.
Don Rowe, president of the RSL veterans group in New South Wales state, said organizers were trying to bar a symbol first adopted in 1901 and which had served through two world wars.
“Using the Cronulla riots as an excuse to outlaw it is an absolute bloody outrage,” Rowe told local newspapers.
State government Premier Morris Iemma said he was seeking legal advice on whether the ban could be overturned.
The row came after claims this month by one of Australia’s top Muslim clerics that Muslim Australians had more right to the country than white people descended from convict settlers.