How the koala became Queensland’s faunal emblem

HRH The Duchess of Kent with a koala at Expo 88, Brisbane. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1460293

HRH The Duchess of Kent with a koala at Expo 88, Brisbane. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1460293.

The koala is an Australian icon.

So, when Australian states came to choose their animal emblems in the late 1960s, the fight was on. Two states in particular were prepared to take it to the final round. The prize? The right to declare the koala as their own.

The action kicked off when the topic of state faunal emblems was first raised at the Conference of Tourist Ministers’ Council (CTMC) on Dunk Island, 14 July 1969. Victoria’s Minister for Agriculture, Gilbert L. Chandler, started with a classic one-two: the Leadbeater Possum and the Helmeted Honey Eater.

Mr. Chandler: Victoria's choice would probably be the leadbeater possum and the helmeted honey eater. Both species are peculiar to Victoria and are not found elsewhere in the world. The leadbeater possum is a beautiful little animal which, until comparatively recent, was thought to be extinct. However, it has been found that it is thriving.

He also moved …

"That the Commonwealth Government be requested formally to gazette 'Golden Wattle' as Australia's Floral Emblem, the Kangaroo and the Emu as Australia's 'Faunal' Emblems."

At the time, the states were punching above their weight. The Federal Government had not officially recognised national floral or faunal emblems. It would take until 1988 for the Golden Wattle to be proclaimed as Australia’s floral emblem. National faunal emblems have still not been officially proclaimed.  

But that didn’t stop the states. The other ministers at the meeting liked the idea of faunal emblems and went back to their respective Cabinets to take action.

On 29 January 1970, Minister for Labour and Tourism, John Herbert, went to Queensland’s Cabinet to talk tactics.

At the Ministers' Conference there was general agreement in principle with the idea that States also should have, in addition to a floral emblem, a faunal emblem, but it was realised that Departments other than the Department concerned with Tourism would have to be consulted in regards to the suggestion and if acceptable by State, care would have to be taken that there was no duplication or confusion between States. Agreement would have to be reached between the States regarding their respective faunal emblem. It is my view that if all States decided to proceed with recognising a faunal emblem, Queensland cannot very well remain aloof to the implementation of such an idea.

Cabinet decided …

1. That approval be given, in principle, to the idea that the respective States recognise a faunal emblem and that the Director General of Tourist Services consult the appropriate officer of the Department of Primary Industries with a view to submitting for the consideration of Cabinet, through the Hon. the Minister for Labour and Tourism, a list of appropriate animals and birds from with three of each might be chosen for consideration in the first instance by the Tourist Directors. 

2. That the matter be further considered when the suggested faunal emblems for all States, including Queensland, have been received from the Conference of Tourist Directors, when consideration can be given as to whether the appropriate place at which this matter should be considered further should be at a Premiers' Conference or other Conference.

However, in the months preceding the 1970 CTMC, it became clear both Queensland and New South Wales were vying for the koala as their first preference. Queensland Cabinet struck hard and early when it decided … 

That approval be given for the Hon. the Minister for Labour and Tourism to approach appropriate publicity media for the purpose of seeking their co-operation to ascertain the views of the public as to which is con

This took the form on an opinion poll in The Courier Mail. Respondents favoured the koala ‘two to one’ over any other options.

Armed with these poll results, Minister Herbert went to the 1970 CTMC to deliver the blow.

In Queensland we adopted a slightly different attitude and we got the local newspaper to run a public opinion poll.
I tried by means of statements and the newspaper tried by the way in which they presented the matter, to steer people off the koala because we were aware that New South Wales had put that in as one of their nominations. Nothing could stop it and the koala won two to one, in spite of attempts to keep the koala out of it. The Queensland nomination was quite definitely for the koala as the emblem so that this is the only are in which we have any dissension. Both New South Wales and Queensland present the koala as their number one choice.

Despite compelling alternative nominations, such as …

a Gold Coast Metre Maid. The Crown of Thorn Starfish and politicians with Comalco Shares.

… the people of Queensland had spoken, and …

there is no hope at all of steering them off the koala so the situation we have, is that all the other States have had a variation except Queensland and New South Wales. How solid are New South Wales are on the koala, that is the question.

Although backed into a corner, New South Wales’ Minister for Tourism, E. A. Willis, hit back.

with the greatest of respect, the koala is a timber climbing animal not a tropical animal

… and …

We have not had a newspaper campaign but I am quite certain that if we did, we would get the same result as Queensland.

The sparring continued, with some contention over which state had the largest koala colony.  

Mr. Herbert: Do you know where the biggest colony of koala bears is?

Mr. Willis: In New South Wales and Victoria.
Mr. Herbert: Magnetic Island has got to be the biggest.

The chairman, Vance Dickie, stepped in to separate the two.

Chairman: Well we must not have cross arguments between New South Wales and Queensland.

But not before Minister Herbert slipped in a surly jab:

Mr. Herbert: Typical lack of knowledge of the north.

Australian Tourist Commission chairman C. A. Greenway also tried to intervene; not by throwing in a towel, but a platypus. He offered …

that it would be a great pity from the Australia point of view if some State does not adopt the platypus and I think, as a Council, if we put a moments reflection into that it would be a great pity that the platypus was not on some State emblem. It is such a unique animal and such a lovely creature.

But neither Queensland, nor New South Wales, were interested in the weird, duck-billed monotreme. They had eyes for only one prize.

The meeting was adjourned, with the fight to be continued by the heavyweights – the Premiers.

Mr. Herbert: I think we could resolve to pass over to the Premiers the decision between Queensland and New South Wales.

Unfortunately, the records at Queensland State Archives don’t tell us what happened next between the Premiers. We dare say the gloves were off.

What we do know is that after the final round, in 1971, Queensland stood victorious. The koala faunal emblem was ours!

New South Wales got the platypus.


  4. Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM314270
  5. Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM314271
  6. Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM406416
  7. Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM406421

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