Welcome to Country - ushered in, whisked out and promptly forgotten

... Perhaps a better indicator of respect for indigenous cultures would be to look closely at the achievements, or lack thereof, of government agencies.
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Wesley Aird The Australian March 19, 2010

Prince William welcomed to 'the Block'.
Picture: Andrew Taylor
Source: ethoscrs.com.au

Once again, we are reminded there are things we should and shouldn't say in relation to indigenous people.

When Tony Abbott recently called into question the practice of the welcome to country ceremony, his comments attracted strong reactions for and against.

There is a time and a place to respect culture but not for tokenism.

When it comes to the common welcome to country ceremony, what happens far too often is an in-house event manager looks around at the last minute for an elderly Aborigine to do the welcome or the event host delivers some droll recitation lacking any feeling for relationships or land. To hear our culture being used to tick a policy box is infuriating.

Ceremonies such as this probably do more harm than good and, to quote the federal Opposition Leader, "seems like out-of-place tokenism".

They are certainly not all bad and I have heard one or two very good welcome to country ceremonies. The indigenous words come from the heart and there is talk of the culture that was here before white man, but in the here and now there is also an existing relationship with the visitors; it's as if they get along, which is what welcomes are about all across the world.

The other necessary part is that the visitors understand indigenous issues and make them a part of their agenda.

Sadly, meaningful welcomes are very rare indeed.

There is also an exquisite irony at play here.

Even though the exchange is sold as a traditional ceremony, as far as I have been able to determine the common form originated as recently as 15 or so years ago. If that is the case, then we get a glimpse as to why communication between black and white cultures so often misses the mark.

An Aborigine fronts up as a representative for their community at some big meeting of government or corporate types, speaks for five minutes, then is dutifully ushered out of the room and out of mind.

Both Aborigines and non-Aborigines believe they get something out of the exchange but it is completely benign.

The risk is this small amount of symbolism is relied on instead of meaningful engagement.

It is very easy to see how this particular bit of theatre plays out.

Wesley Aird

For example, a state government department may well have a policy on welcome to country statements and it would probably mouth the right words on inclusiveness. The chances are if that same department had to construct a building somewhere and push came to shove, it would use every legal or dirty trick in the book to defeat any native title or cultural heritage challenge.

Of course, once construction is complete a traditional owner will be trotted out to speak of a welcome to country even though they were not welcome at all.

Or what about an education department in favour of welcome to country ceremonies that can't or won't educate all indigenous children of school age? There is blatant hypocrisy where an agency espouses cultural inclusivity and respect of indigenous culture, then fails to deliver proper services to the same standards for all other Australians. It is dangerous to let this sort of neglect hide behind symbolism. Sometimes it is healthy to be critical of things that are warm and fuzzy.

This sort of honesty is difficult but it is necessary if we are to make progress overcoming our own disparity.

As a nation, we must respect indigenous culture and give due recognition to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of modern-day Australia. However, serious problems arise for indigenous people when we are unable to tell the difference between symbolism (or tokenism) and engagement.

When an Aboriginal group is asked to do a welcome to country there is a real risk a few minutes in the spotlight could be somewhat seductive.

When the Prime Minister or indeed any senior spokesperson stands up and recites the set of words, there are many who believe this is genuine respect for our indigenous cultures.

Perhaps a better indicator of respect for indigenous cultures would be to look closely at the achievements, or lack thereof, of government agencies.

How a government or corporate organisation treats indigenous people in normal day-to-day interactions is by far a more accurate indicator of respect. A couple of self-righteous words should never be taken as a substitute for genuine progress in the lives of indigenous people.

In the blink of an eye, I would give up all welcome to country ceremonies if they could be traded for marked improvements in important issues such as indigenous health, safety, education and economic participation.

Wesley Aird is a member of the Gold Coast Native Title Group and a board member of the Bennelong Society.