Australia's festival Big Day Out has become embroiled in a controversy over the Australian flag.

Its Sydney show is traditionally held on Australia Day (Jan. 26). During the public holiday, citizens usually wave large flags during the all-day event or wear the flag on T-shirts and bandanas.

In an attempt to avoid any perceived jingoism, Big Day Out promoter Creative Festival Entertainment shifted the Sydney date to Jan. 25.

Its Sydney-based co-director Ken West requested in a newspaper interview that the 50,000-strong crowd refrain from sporting the flag. He said the use of the flag during 2005 battles between Anglo-Saxon and Lebanese youths at Cronulla beach in Sydney -- and again between youths of Serbian, Croatian and Greek ancestry this month at the Australian Open tennis tournament -- had forced his hand.

"The Australian flag was being used as gang colours," West told the newspaper. "It was racism disguised as patriotism and I'm not going to tolerate it."

However, media reports yesterday (Jan. 22) claimed that Big Day Out had "banned" the flag, and planned to confiscate evidence of it at the gates. Politicians and war veterans were quick to condemn. Morris Iemma, premier of New South Wales, said that comparing the flag to gang colours was "just outrageous, and totally unacceptable."

Bill Crews, the Returned Services Leagues' national president, and
Andrew Robb, Parliamentary secretary for immigration, called for the show to be cancelled.

Later yesterday afternoon, Big Day Out released a statement emphasizing that West's statements were not intended "to disrespect the symbolism of the Australian or any other flag." It said the request was made as much as huge flags waved about in the crowd, creating a safety hazard and often obstructing the views of others.

"We have no problem with people being patriotic, and we certainly do not have a problem with people wearing or displaying what they feel is important," the statement read. "Regardless of how it has been interpreted, this is about audience safety and enjoyment."

It added, "The Big Day Out is not an Australia Day event, but a music festival showcasing music artists from around the world and aspires to unify people through music."

Big Day Out's six shows annually draw approximately 250,000 concertgoers. Since its beginning in 1991 as a Sydney-only event, Big Day Out has been regarded by record labels as an important festival that broke acts as Tool (who coincidentally are headlining this year's bill, alongside My Chemical Romance, The Killers, Evermore and Jet) and Nirvana.

This year's event began Jan. 19 in Auckland, and drew 44,000 to Mt. Smart Stadium. It moved to the Gold Coast where it drew 30,000 in attendance. Other shows are in Melbourne (Jan. 28), Adelaide (Feb. 2) and Perth (Feb. 4). With the exception of the Perth date, all shows sold out within days.