Lip service

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Tuckey weighed in a few hours later, claiming such recognition was a ‘farce’, while Senator Eric Abetz called it ‘outdated’ and a ‘fad’.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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. Every time I hear the traditional land owners acknowledged, I cringe. It’s so laden with other things designed to distance us from the atrocities of the present. Indigenous issues are going to take years to ease, but I look forward to a time when there is no acknowledgement prior to any speech or event. We won’t need the acknowledgement if the people themselves are fully acknowledged.

  2. But in lieu of living in a culture where those people are not fully acknowledged what would you suggest, Jon? That we delete any acknowledgement at all, no matter how formulaic?

  3. What other things is it laden with though, Jon, apart from a supposition of political correctness? The welcome to country and paying of respects to elders past and present is based on Indigenous tradition itself. The incorporation of it into ceremonies, functions and speeches that are not specifically Indigenous might be minuscule in comparison to say, land rights legislation, but it’s still a prominent part of official protocol even if it has become a chore to some people.

    The fact that it has become something to cringe about says more, I think, about how much our society would prefer to avoid the ’embarrassing’ issue of Indigenous Australia altogether, rather than taking the infinitely more difficult step of embracing it across the board.

  4. The principle aim of ‘acknowledgment of traditional owners’ is to prove the virtue of the speaker. It achieves that, and usually nothing else.

  5. Isn’t it a little like those nineties debates about language and power? I mean, there were all kinds of bureaucrats, particularly in the university system, who could talk the right talk but just used their carefully non-hierarchical and non-gendered communicative skills to carry out mass sackings. In that context, I’d much rather be on the side of the striking general staff member, even if he or she occasionally expressed the situation indelicately.
    On the other hand, when Tony Abbott attacks welcome to country ceremonies and all his redneck cronies duly chime in, well, you don’t have to be a political genius to figure that a new attack on Indigenous affairs is in the offing.
    I guess what I’m saying is that it’s context dependent. At a writers’ festival, for example, is it better that there’s some acknowledgment of traditional owners or that there’s not? It probably doesn’t achieve a great deal but it might make a few people think, and that’s not a bad thing, surely.

  6. I agree that context is key.

    But then again Jeff, what if the program of said writers festival includes no indigenous writers at all, and rarely does? Wouldn’t this kind of acknowledgement be just a tad tokenistic and offensive in those circumstances?

    I think context is not just about the venue or event, but about the true intent of the organisers and the extent of their broader, practical support of indigenous Australia.

  7. I wonder how many indigenous people regard welcome to country as a token gesture or fad?
    I suspect many would see it as an important symbolic gesture. And as for it being outdated and irrelevant what does that say about the Union Jack on our national flag? Abbott , Tuckey, Abetz? What else would you expect from that triumvirate of trogs?

  8. Like Jon, I also tend to cringe at the start of any ceremony at my university that begins with acknowledgement of the traditional land owners. My reasons for doing so is that usually these acknowledgements are being spoken by the kind of awful, bureaucratic types that have no bone of empathy or understanding in their body. You know that just before the ‘show’, they’ve been briefed with something akin to ‘Oh yeah, and remember to throw in the bit about the Aboriginals and all that,’ and they’ve rolled their eyes before trotting up onto the stage. Or perhaps that’s my over-active cynicism. Though don’t get me started on some of the ridiculous speeches I’ve heard in Australia Days past. Thanking both the indigenous Australians and Woolworths in the same breath–the irony!

    Still, as you say, even when it isn’t genuinely meant, it’s a reminder. And hopefully the act put on by various ministers in speaking the words will be good enough to convince even a few people to consider the state of indigenous affairs in this country of ours.

  9. Whether or not Indigenous people are actually present at said events (whether it’s a Welcome to Country or just the acknowledgement) is kind of beside the point, I think. Surely reconciliation is about more than just performing amends when Indigenous people are watching, but also incorporating aspects of Indigenous culture into everyday Australian life, and at the very least recognising and respecting it as having a valid role to play in contemporary ‘white’ Australia? If the intent of the organisers of an event is merely to pay lip service, maybe won’t achieve much materially, but I’m not sure how it can be a bad thing, and given the dearth of recognition of Indigenous Australia in general I do not see how removing it could be at all the better alternative.

    Most non-Indigenous Australians blithely go about their day-to-day business without ever thinking about the fact of how they and their families came to be standing on that particular piece of dirt. So I think the reminders, however perfunctory, are important. If it draws attention to the hypocrisy of the speaker on the issue – and dare I say, the majority of the audience – so much the better. Having to face up to the difficulties of reconciliation is *hard* – on a personal level as well as a political level. It requires a whole reevaluation of individual identity, not to mention national identity. The threat of this, I think, is what makes people most uncomfortable.

  10. Hi Stephanie – You’re right, the alternative is unthinkable.

    I wonder if by ‘Most non-Indigenous Australians’ you mean ‘Most Anglo Australians’?

    I certainly know a lot of recent refugees and migrants who either think consciously every day about their journey here, or are forced by others to think about it.

    By extension I guess this group of Australians, many dispossessed of their own homelands in different ways, are probably more likely to also turn their minds to indigenous Australia.

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