Aboriginal Australia & Welcome To Country. Symbolism or tokenism?

Some awful politicians have a knack for taking one teeny weeny aspect of modern life and putting the boot into it in the name of ‘anti-political correctness’. As if that was a badge you’d wear with pride. Ugh.
Yesterday, a debate erupted about the value of Welcome To Country – the very brief few sentences that often begin a formal ceremony that acknowledges the traditional indigenous owners of the land.

The Department of Environment and Heritage explains Welcome To Country like this:

At various places throughout Australia there are times when a welcome may be extended to visitors by traditional owners. The type of welcome offered will vary depending on the individual or group involved. You may be welcomed in the form of a sign or a brochure.
If you are invited onto Aboriginal land or into an Aboriginal community, a personal welcome may be extended by traditional owners.
Acknowledgement of traditional lands or a welcome from a representative of the local Indigenous group might also be included at the start of a major event or conference.
As a visitor, being welcomed is your chance to acknowledge and reflect on the particular community on whose ancestral lands you stand.

Is that such a terrible thing? Is it really something we need to have a national debate about? Are we SO in touch with our indigenous past that we have to exterminate this too?

Apparently, it is. The Australian reports….

Tony Abbott has opened up a new front in the culture wars by declaring that Kevin Rudd and other Labor ministers demonstrate a misplaced sense of political correctness when acknowledging the traditional owners of land at official functions.

Mr Abbott’s dismissal of the modern practice of acknowledging traditional owners as “out-of-place tokenism” also won support among some Aboriginal leaders, who have described the trend as “paternalistic”.


But the Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation’s Eddie Mulholland said it was a positive move to acknowledge Aboriginal owners. “What’s Tony Abbott trying to achieve, some cheap political shot?” Mr Mulholland asked. “It’s an acknowledgment that we do exist with humans.

“It is not that long ago we were classified as part of the flora and fauna.”

Perhaps you saw Q&A on the ABC last night (you can watch it here). I was shocked to learn that Peter Dutton, shadow minister for Health and Aging, had refused to attend parliament for the official apology to the stolen generation. So strongly did he feel about not acknowledging the past and not saying sorry to indigenous people who were taken from their parents for no other reason than the colour of their skin, he offered to resign from parliament.
Holy cow. Not that he was ever really on my radar before but I’ll certainly never be able to look at Peter Dutton in the same way again. I think that’s beyond appalling.

There was some lively debate about this issue last night among the panel which included columnists Miranda Devine, Catherine Deveny, Labor front bencher Bill Shorten and the incredible academic Waleed Aly.
When the conversation turned to whether Welcome To Country and acknowledging the traditional owners of the land at official government functions was ‘tokenistic’ he made some stunning points that had me nodding my head so hard it wobbled.
Here’s what he said:

I don’t think the point of an acknowledgment like that is any suggestion of let’s give a whole lot of land back. That’s clearly not in play. But I think what it is about, and one of the reasons I really struggle with the response we’ve just had from Peter Dutton is it’s about recognition. It’s one thing to say, well, I will support practical reconciliation. I will support measures that will bring about real changes in people’s lives. That’s fine.

But to set that up as something that is somehow opposed to the symbolic act of recognising someone’s humanity – I mean one of the dark ironies of the whole thing, and the way Kevin Rudd particularly articulates his acknowledgements, is he acknowledges the first Australians. Well, Indigenous people in this country are not the first Australians. They’re actually the last Australians. We refused to call them Australians until 1967 when we had a referendum.

If you do not understand the importance of that act of recognition for a people that have been decimated – more than decimated. Decimated means killing one in 10.

If you don’t understand these people have been so thoroughly dehumanised and treated as, as Catherine says, flora and fauna, the mere act of recognition in such a powerful symbolic act that although, yeah, it might get tedious having three people get up and do the same thing, frankly to hear people complain about that it I just find that unbelievable.

He said that there is a difference between tokenistic and symbolic. That acknowledging the past did not have to be about guilt or tokenism, merely acknowledgement and validation that our history is something we must always remember – both good and bad.


My question is this. Why is it so threatening to some people to acknowledge the past?

I was asked to give a speech at a NSW governnment function last week for International Women’s Day and before I spoke, an aboriginal woman was invited to give us a very brief Welcome To Country. At my son’s local primary school they always acknowledged the traditional owners of the land during any school function.
It takes three seconds usually and how can that possibly be offensive to anyone? How can that be inappropriate?
I always relish the opportunity to reflect – even briefly – on our indigenous culture and the history of our country. I often find it unexpectedly moving. Indigenous Australia doesn’t really factor into my daily life at any other time so I appreciate the chance to think about it – and I’m grateful that my children are growing up in a world where Welcome To Country or acknowledging the traditional land owners is just an unremarkable part of life.

What do you think? Have you seen a Welcome To Country or heard an acknowledgement of traditional landowners? Did it feel like tokenism or did you like it?


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