Welcome to Country: Form Over Substance in Achieving Real Change

October 25, 2021 Updated: October 26, 2021

Commentary

“First, I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the nation. I pay my respect to Elders, past, present, and emerging, and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this event takes place.”

The “Acknowledgement of Country” and “Welcome to Country” rituals have become embedded into the fabric of Australian life. Nowadays, every public activity organised by any level of government—federal, state, or local—starts with the Welcome.

The Welcome is also an ever-present sacramental process that takes place at the beginning of meetings, conferences, and seminars in universities. It may also be recited at open-air events. For example, a Land for Wildlife event will predictably begin with a Welcome to Country. Even private companies have now adopted the practice.

Indigenous actor Ernie Dingo and his cobber, Richard Walley, created the Welcome to Country in the 1970s when they welcomed a troupe of Pacific dancers to Australia. At the time, they made it clear that it should remain voluntary, and not mandatory. But since then, the Welcome has become an inevitable part of any introductory speech, often repeated by most speakers at an event.

There are various versions. Typically, it requires attendees to pay respect to the Indigenous population and acknowledge their custodianship of Australia’s territory.

Experience has shown that the artificial and ritualised language of the Welcome often sits uncomfortably with the attendees of an event.

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An Aboriginal flag waves in front of the giant television screen as thousands gather in Melbourne’s Federation Square, Australia, on Feb. 13, 2008 to listen to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a historic apology in parliament to the Aboriginal people for injustices committed over two centuries of white settlement. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

Acknowledging Indigenous peoples is, of course, not limited to Australia. For example, in Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) recommends that its members open meetings and conferences with an appropriately worded acknowledgement. In its guide, CAUT asserts that:

“Acknowledging territory shows recognition of and respect for Aboriginal Peoples. It is recognition of their presence both in the past and the present. Recognition and respect are essential elements of establishing healthy, reciprocal relations. These relationships are key to reconciliation, a process to which CAUT is committed.”

CAUT further states that the acknowledgement is part of “the larger context of genuine and ongoing work to forge real understanding, and to challenge the legacies of colonialism.”

It also emphasises that it is not “a pro forma statement” but, instead, it must be understood as a “vital part of the business.”

To demystify the Welcome, it is necessary to reflect on its nature and consequences.

Specifically, one might ask the question whether it effectively contributes to “respect” for Indigenous cultures and improves the material plight of Aboriginals.

The Welcome, in focusing on the need to respect Indigenous cultures, is certainly capable, at least potentially, of contributing to the development of harmonious relationships between diverse groups in society.

In this context, Reconciliation Australia notes on its website that its incorporation “shows respect by upholding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural protocols.”

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The Aboriginal flag is seen projected on the sails of the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2020. (Don Arnold/Getty Images)

In this context, Mark Powell, an associate pastor at the Cornerstone Presbyterian Community Church, argued that the Welcome is, “an act of cultural appropriation, as the Welcome’s white-bread cliches have become a droning obligatory overture before everything from football matches to the opening of parliaments.”

He also points out that, “Both ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ practices not only fail to honour Aboriginal culture, such as it was, but are disingenuous representations as to what Indigenous people historically did.”

Although the Welcome’s emphasis on “respect” is a timely reminder of the need to revere Australia’s Aboriginal cultural heritage, the language used in the statement should emphasise that “respect” is a reciprocal expectation. Only then would it meaningfully contribute to harmony and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

It is, however, precisely the one-sidedness of the acknowledgement that vitiates against the promotion of respect. Several reasons support this view.

First, the Australian version implies that non-Indigenous Australians are merely visitors on Aboriginal lands, interlopers who are intent on robbing the so-called traditional owners of their land.

The Reconciliation website tells its users that, “Taking the time to Acknowledge Country, or including a Welcome to Country at an event, reminds us that every day we live, work, and dream on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.”

Surely, subject to the validity of this implication, the Welcome induces non-Indigenous Australians into a permanent state of guilt, which fails to promote reconciliation, but instead militates against its achievement.

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Dancers perform at The Yabun Festival, an annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures at Camperdown in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2020. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Second, the Welcome by itself does nothing to improve the material conditions of Australia’s Indigenous population.

It does not offer concrete assistance that could help Aboriginals become self-sufficient and reduce the need for government assistance and charity.

It is an artificial motherhood statement, which promotes form over substance. Indeed, the Welcome is but a poor substitute for the meaningful assistance, which governmental and private sectors of the Australian economy would otherwise be able to offer to the Indigenous population.

Although the Welcome, in its present state is merely an artificial statement, it may nevertheless generate demands.

For example, it could give an impetus to demands that Australia concludes a treaty with its Indigenous population, or that Indigenous people be represented in Parliament, either in a mandatory or advisory capacity—known as The Voice—or by via a quota of parliamentary seats.

The Welcome thus supports demands for a comprehensive treaty with Australia. A proposal to that effect has already been placed before the Queensland state Parliament (pdf).

Regardless as currently fashioned, it is no wonder that sections of the Australian electorate regard the Welcome a charade, that sends a confusing message even to those Australians trained in the rigorous discussion of ethical and legal issues.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).