Yarra City Council will fly the Yellow Flag of the former South Vietnam at its town halls next month in defiance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The flag will be raised in Richmond, Fitzroy and Collingwood to mark Vietnamese Veterans Day on June 19, after the council adopted a new Civic Flag Policy and despite DFAT urging caution lest the move put at risk Australia’s $1 billion-plus trade relationship with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The decision by the council comes after similar moves by Maribyrnong City and Greater Dandenong in recent years.
In response, a spokesperson for DFAT said in a prepared statement: “Where local governments have sought to fly the Co Vang Yellow Flag, we have reminded them of the Commonwealth Government’s policy to fly only the official flags of nations recognised by Australia in conjunction with the Australian national flag.
“This policy is based on longstanding practice and aims to encourage dignified and respectful use of flags within Australia and its territories. The Australian Government Flag Protocol is not a matter of law and state and local jurisdictions are not bound by the policy.”
Australia has formally recognised the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam since 1973.
However, Yarra Mayor Cr Amanda Stone said: “Flying flags is one way council celebrates our city’s rich social and cultural diversity.
“Council recognises the Vietnamese Yellow Flag as a symbol of the identity and contributions of the Vietnamese Australian people.”
Yarra has one of Australia’s biggest Vietnamese communities with residents of Vietnamese ancestry accounting for around 4 per cent of the municipality’s population, compared to 1 per cent for Australia overall. Many families fled to Australia in the 1970s, escaping the war between the communist north and Western-backed south.
The Victorian Chapter of the Vietnamese Community in Australia approached the council last July, asking it to fly the Yellow Flag on significant days for the community, but the process was delayed following DFAT’s initial intervention.
In a letter to councillors last August, DFAT’s Victorian director, Jenny Bloomfield, urged that the matter be handled sensitively, citing the importance of Australia’s estimated annual $1.2 billion trade links with Vietnam and the enrolment of more than 13,500 Vietnamese students in Australian schools and universities.
Ms Bloomfield said the Vietnamese Government had raised the issue of local councils flying the Yellow Flag of former South Vietnam with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, reaffirming its opposition via its embassy in Canberra.
Maribyrnong City and Greater Dandenong are believed to have received similar advice from DFAT ahead of their decisions to fly the Yellow Flag.
After lengthy consultation, Yarra Council voted unanimously last month to back its constituents by revoking its existing flag rules in favour of a new Civic Flag Policy, which allows the council to fly a range of flags on newly-erected poles at its town halls on days of community significance.
Adding the flag poles meant the council would not have to take down the Australian, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flags. The new poles will be placed away from the existing poles, thereby avoiding having the emblem of an unrecognised nation hoisted alongside the Australian flag.
“The fact that [the new policy] was carried unanimously spoke volumes,” said local Vietnamese in Australia president Vivienne Nguyen. “This is what it means to be an inclusive community.”
Referring to a local petition that carried almost 3500 signatures in support of flying the Yellow Flag, fellow Victorian Chapter executive Claudia Nguyen said: “It is important to recognise the grassroots effort by members of the local Vietnamese community that has led to this outcome.
“It is about acknowledgement and recognition of the older generation . . . and it is important for the second generation to have reference to where we come from and what that history means in terms of helping us embrace our heritage and identity here in Australia.”
The construction of new flag poles at the Council’s three signature inner-city town halls is to be funded out of its 2017-2018 budget at an estimated cost of $10,000.
Maribyrnong City declined to comment on Yarra’s decision, but its director for corporate services, Celia Haddock, said: “In 2015, Council resolved to recognise the Vietnamese Refugee Community flag for the 40th anniversary of the refugee population’s arrival in Australia.
“Maribyrnong has a strong relationship with the Vietnamese community, with 10 per cent of our population born in Vietnam and a greater percentage speaking Vietnamese at home.”
Around 9 per cent of Dandenong City’s residents claim Vietnamese ancestry.