Where are Canberra’s flags kept and who looks after them?

There are hundreds of flag poles in the nation’s capital, and thousands of flags. Meet the Canberrans who look after them.

Faye Powell sent in a question about the city’s flags, which often change overnight, signalling the arrival of a foreign dignitary.

“I’ve driven down Commonwealth Avenue many, many times, and noticed all the different flags that come up and go down,” she said.

Faye imagined a “huge storage area”, located somewhere in Canberra, and was hoping for a sticky beak.

When Curious Canberra wrangled an invitation to the ACT Government’s flag store, in the industrial suburb of Fyshwick, she jumped at the chance to come along.

Flying the flags

Three Canberrans manage most of the flags that are flown in the city.

Michael Arioli has been raising and lowering flags for 15 years, as an ACT Government employee.

I joined him one morning at a set of flag poles on the Commonwealth Avenue bridge, ahead of a visit from the President of Croatia.

“You’ve just got to make sure you put them up the right way for starters, and they obviously go in order,” Michael explained.

“Australian’s always first, then the next country, then it’s an Australian [flag] … whichever direction the traffic’s going, you must always have the Australian [flag] first.”

It’s common for Michael and his colleagues Marc Hirzel and Rhys Husselbee to start work before sunrise, owing to strict Australian flag protocols.

It states that flags can be raised at first light, at the earliest, and should not be lowered later than dusk.

There are other rules too, which keep the team busy when a foreign official is in town.

“You’re not allowed to fly any flag really in the dark, so we take the ones that aren’t lit down, and then redo it again in the morning, and redo it again in the afternoon, until that certain day when the dignitaries leave.”

The work doesn’t end once the flags come down.

“They end up with a lot of poo on them, so we wash them straight away just to get those marks off them.”

Inside the flag store

To help with that job, there’s an industrial washing machine inside the flag store, and rows of washing line too.

But that’s not what Faye had come to see.

During our visit, Michael took her through the most impressive feature of the store – the shelves and shelves of boxed up flags.

“We … store indoor flags, outdoor flags, ceremonial flags … not just for dignitaries, we hold a lot of events in the ACT as well, like Floriade, the World Cup rugby.”

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet owns the international flags in the store.

They’re frequently audited and organised by country, then fabric type, and stored in plastic boxes.

When an official foreign visit is scheduled, the department contacts the team, via administrative officer Carol Miller.

Michael and Marc then ready the flags, ahead of their installation along Canberra’s main arterial roads.

As to how many countries are represented in the store, Michael said it’s “pretty well every single one, other than just a couple.”

On leaving the flag store, Faye confirmed that her question was well and truly answered.

“It was … great to meet the guys because they had some interesting stories to tell, and the work they do, the hours they work – it’s something you don’t realise when you see the flags,” she said.

And next time she notices new flags as she drives through the city…

“I’ll be thinking of those two guys out there putting flags up at 3.30 in the morning!”

Who asked the question?

Faye Powell came to Canberra for work 22 years ago, and recently retired.

Having worked in IT, she’s often thought about the enduring power of flags.

“They haven’t been replaced by tech, even now at the Olympics, you see real flags, you don’t see banks of screens with flags on them,” she said.

“They evoke such emotions, whether they’re national flags … ISIS flags, or rainbow flags … they really bring people together.”