Flag ban on Sydney's Big Day Out sparks fury

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At Australia's biggest outdoor rock concert last year, young white men accosted fans and demanded they pledge allegiance to the national flag.

The Big Day Out concert was six weeks after race riots at Cronulla, a Sydney beach, where surfers, draped in national flags, attacked young Lebanese-Australians. Concert organisers were sickened by the echoes of that violence. But their decision to ban the flag this year, branding it a "gang colour" that could incite hatred, has been greeted by an outpouring of vitriol.

The most outraged voices belonged to national and state political leaders who will be seeking re-election this year. The Prime Minister, John Howard, on his first day back at work after a Christmas break, denounced the move as "stupid and offensive... to millions of Australians".

Mr Howard, whose conservative government plans to test new immigrants on their grasp of supposedly unique Australian values such as "mateship" and "a fair go", said organisers "should not ram their peculiar political views down the throats of young Australians who are only interested in a good day out".

The Big Day Out is staged in Australian cities, and has drawn some of the world's biggest bands, including Pearl Jam, the Ramones, the Foo Fighters and Chemical Brothers. This year's headline act is Jet. The Sydney event is usually held on Australia Day, commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet of British convicts. (Aborigines call it Invasion Day.) This year, to dampen nationalistic fervour, it has been brought forward 24 hours.

The event producer, Ken West, said: "I didn't like the behaviour of last year. The Australian flag was being used as gang colours. It was racism disguised as patriotism, and I'm not going to tolerate it." Mr West was lying low yesterday, but organisers posted a statement on the Big Day Out website claiming the flag was not banned. They were merely "discouraging its use".

Whether that was backtracking or clarification, it did not halt the row that raged all day. The Labour Premier of New South Wales, Morris Iemma, said: "It's an insult to all Australians. You can't stop people from showing pride in their country in this way." It was up to security staff to intervene, he said, if some "louts in the crowd" tried to use the flag to intimidate others.

Mr Iemma will be asking voters to return him to office later this year, as will Mr Howard. Their respective opposite numbers, Peter Debnam and Kevin Rudd, were equally outspoken about the row yesterday.

Mr West said that, on top of the unpleasant scenes at last year's Sydney concert, he had been disturbed by fighting between ethnic Serb and Croatian fans outside the Australian Open tennis tournament last week. The rival groups, who were ejected, were wearing their countries' flags.

Veterans' groups complained that concert organisers were trying to ban a symbol that had served Australia through two world wars. "Using the Cronulla riots as an excuse to outlaw it is an absolute bloody outrage," said Don Rowe, president of the New South Wales branch of the RSL (Returned and Services League) organisation.