Members of the Liberal Party have been creating a minor storm about the matter of Indigenous recognition. In statements made to the Adelaide Advertiser yesterday, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott implied that formal recognition of traditional owners at the beginning of significant events is superficial and unnecessary. ‘I guess this is the kind of genuflection to political correctness that [Labor ministers] feel they have to make’ he said. ‘Sometimes it’s appropriate to do those things, but certainly I think in many contexts it seems like out-of-place tokenism.’ Liberal backbencher Wilson Tuckey weighed in a few hours later, claiming such recognition was a ‘farce’, while Senator Eric Abetz called it ‘outdated’ and a ‘fad’.
In one sense, they are right. Formalities that aren’t backed up by conviction and action will always look like tokenism, because, well, that’s what they become. But the problem is not in the act of formal recognition but in the assumption that lip service is all there is to it. The truth is, there is a disconnect between political symbolism and action on Indigenous issues in Australia. The recognition of traditional owners, the welcome to country, is essential if only because it draws attention to this disconnect. It reminds the non-Indigenous listener of the fact of their colonial heritage, of the continued existence of Indigenous people and culture, and their direct relationship to everyone who calls themselves Australian. Or at least, it should.
Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, puts it this way:
The High Court of Australia in the Mabo decision recognised the fact that Australia was occupied when the British came here and that the land (and the seas) continued to be cared for, occupied, utilised and identified as the land of different tribal groups, operating in accordance with their customary laws and traditions.
It was more than 200 years before the courts finally recognised this fact in 1992 and it, along with the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, has steered us along the reconciliation path that we are still travelling on. Acknowledging Traditional Owners is a contemporary and practical way of enshrining the High Court decision in Mabo.
The problem is that when comments such as those first mentioned come from notoriously conservative members of the Liberal Party, whose track record on Indigenous affairs has been half-hearted and reactionary at best, they don’t sound like a call to arms for Indigenous rights; they sound like thinly veiled racism. This isn’t helped when ‘Old Ironbar’ Tuckey says things like ‘I have never thanked anyone for the right to be on the soil that is Australian.’ Comments such as these serve only to highlight the continued rift between cultures and in particular, the profound lack of understanding of Indigenous cultures and traditions that plagues mainstream non-Indigenous society. Continued recognition of traditional owners also offends a sense of Australian identity that takes its cues from an ingrained notion of Western superiority – a perspective that considers Indigenous culture for its aesthetic value only (when it considers it at all) and sees ‘progress’ as a matter of becoming ‘white’. This perspective is far more prevalent in small-l liberal non-Indigenous Australian society than perhaps we would like to admit.
If the mere act of speaking recognition has become tired, perhaps that is because we are no longer paying attention to what we are saying. It doesn’t follow, however, that the act of speaking should be omitted. Formal recognition is a sign of respect for Indigenous people, their cultures and their status as first Australians. It should be seen as an important step, but only one of many towards mainstream recognition of the complexity and breadth of Australian history and identity, and ultimately, reconciliation.