As it Happened: beyond the stories – an about face on WA’s state flag

WA State Flag

This month, in 1875, the design of Western Australia’s flag with its black swan was confirmed in despatches by Governor William Robinson. It began a drama that continues today, 146 years later.

Five years previously, in 1870, Governor Frederick Weld had proposed a flag design depicting a black swan on a yellow backdrop, the same image confirmed by his successor, Governor Robinson.

Weld reasoned: “The colony at its commencement was known as the Swan River Settlement and the Black Swan is represented upon its seal, and has always been considered as its special badge, or cognisance.”

But it created a heraldry hiccup: On the approved design, the symbolic swan faced the observer’s right. An about-face was required.

In heraldry, the observer’s left is “the point of honour toward which all emblems should face.” It was considered in 1936 by concerned officials at the College of Arms. Then, with the prospect of a 1954 royal tour, the vital question was raised in State Parliament.

So, on 3 November, 1953, our symbolic swan was given an about-face to face to forever gaze to the observer’s left, adhering to vexillological convention.

Western Australia’s flag, of course, is similar to the flags of the other five States with blue ensigns plus their respective state badges. When all are flown, together with the national flag, WA’s flag is a lowly sixth in order of precedence. 

“This is indicative of its position on the Commonwealth Coat of Arms,” says an official document.

The black swan, unique in the world, came as a shock to wide-eyed Europeans with their white-feathered species and was an obvious choice of symbol. In 1697, after Willem de Vlamingh observed black swans, he named their home the Swan River (Zwaanenrivier in Dutch).

The British then used “Swan River Colony” as the name for its settlements at Fremantle and Perth in 1829. The black swan, attacked and eaten by early arrivals, was adopted as an unofficial symbol. It became the State’s bird emblem in 1973.

The colours and symbols of our flag are said to carry cultural, political and regional meanings: “The blue ensign is a conspicuous symbol of Great Britain, Australia’s mother country,” explained an official document.

But, with Australia’s weakening ties with British royalty, Europeans’ maltreatment of original inhabitants, questions of a future republic and the political correctness of Australia’s national and State flags bearing a symbol of Britain, WA’s flag may be facing another about-face.

The challenge would be to redesign our flag to be fully-inclusive, representing a proud and prosperous State that has been inhabited for at least 60,000 years, not just since the flag was hoisted beside the Swan River by European settlers.

Note: Australia’s national flag was first raised officially by Governor-General Lord Hopetoun at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition buildings on September 3, 1901, watched by the public and Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton.