Q&A: Acknowledgement of Country

BY AMY MCQUIREJUNE 1, 2011

Originally published by Tracker Magazine.  

A Welcome to Country ceremony in Sydney. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu created controversy last month after stating that providing acknowledgements to country were no longer compulsory for state MPs. (AAP IMAGE/DEAN LEWINS)

NATIONAL: The Premier of Victoria recently sparked controversy by attacking the tradition of ‘Acknowledgement of Country’. AMY McQUIRE explains the significance of the event.

What is an acknowledgement of country?

An acknowledgement of country is a short statement at the beginning of any public speech or event, to appropriately acknowledge the traditional owners or custodians on the land the event is being staged. 


It’s a show of recognition that this is Aboriginal land and serves as a sign of respect and acknowledgement of the strong history and culture of the local Aboriginal community. 


An acknowledgement is different from a Welcome to Country, which is a ritual a traditional owner or custodian, often an elder, gives to welcome visitors to the venue the event is held on.


An invitation to perform a Welcome to Country is another sign of respect for traditional owners and custodians. 


It is also a reciprocal arrangement, where Aboriginal people invite visitors onto their land.

A Welcome to Country may come in a number of forms, like a speech, or the dance performed at the Opening of federal Parliament in 2007.

It was the first time a Welcome to Country ceremony had opened an Australian federal Parliament in history and is now legislated in the Standing Orders.

How important is it to Aboriginal people?

Aboriginal Australians are the most discriminated against group in Australian society and have suffered the loss of land, children, wages and dignity. 


Symbolic practices play a huge role in easing the pain of the past, particularly when offered by non-Aboriginal Australia.

Acknowledgements by non-Indigenous people serve as a goodwill gesture by acknowledging the past history of oppression and recognising the possibility of a shared future in partnership with Aboriginal Australians. 


Ultimately, it is a sign of respect towards a people who have long been denied any such respect. 


In addition, Indigenous people will often acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of land, as a part of Aboriginal culture. 


It is an important cultural protocol for us to acknowledge our ancestors and the traditional custodians of the land we are standing upon. 


Welcome to Country ceremonies are also of deep importance to Aboriginal Australia. Aboriginal people have been welcoming people to their country for thousands of years, even those from abroad. 


There is evidence that hundreds of years ago, Aboriginal groups in northern Australia would welcome the Macassans from Indonesia with a dance or ceremony, before trade would commence.

A Welcome to Country is a step towards healing, and is a generous gift to non-Aboriginal Australia that they are welcome to country, even after the hundreds of years of oppression.

Why is an acknowledgement to country so controversial?

To the majority of Aboriginal people, it is not controversial. But for some in white Australia, it’s something that appears beyond their comprehension. For opponents of the idea, an acknowledgement to country falls into the arena of political correctness, tokenism and paternalism.

For example, last year, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott used these very words when describing an acknowledgement given by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. 
Mr Abbott claimed acknowledgements are “out-of-place tokenism” and stated it was indicative of Labor’s “genuflection to political correctness”.


This month the debate heated up again after Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu announced that the former Brumby government’s policy of acknowledging traditional owners and custodians would not be compulsory for members of parliament or public servants.

Premier Baillieu will still acknowledge the traditional owners of the land at Aboriginal events, but acknowledges everyone, as well as the Indigenous community, at mainstream events. His sentiments were backed by former Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett who claimed that he was “embarrassed” by the tradition, because he felt “it was being given for the wrong reason”.

This subject has a tendency to upset many Australians, as illustrated in the comments to the above story. Many commentators believe acknowledgements are divisive. For example, ‘Peter of the Gold Coast’ wrote that he had “always been against that particular policy: 
People of aboriginal extraction are less than 3 percent of our population. So what do we do?

Recognise every ethnic group who approach a similar percentage? Sometimes I think the do-gooders forget we are all Australians no matter what our origin and should be treated as such and no more.” 


The ‘Grey Ghost of Cairns’ stated: 
“Long overdue, well done Ted. No more special treatment for not so special people. One size fits all is the only truly fair and democratic way to recognise all peoples.”


‘Jeff Johnson of Toowoomba’ stated: 
“Oh what a pity, I have always valued the opening acknowledgement as a means of forcing guilt onto innocent non-aboriginals.

“I love it at my daughter’s state school – the assembly always opens with the ridiculous bla bla about the custodians. Nice to know that my little 5-year-old innocent is not too young to begin the long journey of guilt.

“It is nice for her to believe early on that she is a noxious and introduced species in this country and of secondary value to those poor forgotten aboriginals.”

Is it divisive and tokenistic?

No. This misguided belief that Aboriginal people get “special treatment” and that an acknowledgement to country is “divisive” is wrong. As previously stated, an Acknowledgement to Country is not just an acknowledgement of the traditional owners and custodians. It is an acknowledgement of our 40,000 year old culture. It is an acknowledgement of our connection and duty to land. And it goes even deeper than that.

It’s an acknowledgement of that stolen land, those poisoned waterholes, those Aboriginal men and women led in chains. It’s an acknowledgement of the strength of our people, of our ability to survive and rise above these struggles.

Do other symbolic traditions attract the same amount of ridicule? What if we decided that ANZAC Day should be stripped of its symbolism?

What if we decided that, because most people merely mouth the words when forced to sing them, we should get rid of our national anthem at major sporting events? 


As New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council chairwoman Bev Manton aptly put it: “Using these words at official events may not heal the sick, or boost educational outcomes for Aboriginal kids, but it’s not supposed to. 


“It does however show that our elected leaders have an understanding and an admiration for Aboriginal culture and people.
It’s symbolism, but its essential symbolism.”

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