The practice of Acknowledgement of Country has become ubiquitous at office meetings to sporting events across Australia. Professor Megan Davis cast her eye over its contemporary use and its role in reconciliation.
Today in Australia, an ancient cultural practice relating to the regulation of strangers on country, born of recognition, relatedness and reciprocity, has become a welcoming convention for the nation.
Welcome to Country protocol is exercised at the openings of parliament, conferences, sporting fixtures and graduation ceremonies. Those who have traced the contemporary iteration of Welcome to Country from the classical pre-contact period to today say its resurgence can be traced to the ’80s, the land-rights era. It is a cultural practice, but it is also a legal and political act. Performative. Ritualistic. Respectful. It is a ubiquitous feature of the Australian cultural landscape.
Welcome to Country can be distinguished from an Acknowledgement of Country: the former is delivered by a Traditional Owner and the latter is not. Unlike Welcome to Country, the Acknowledgement of Country, when delivered by a non-Indigenous person, has been known to animate discomfort among Aboriginal people.
A few years ago, Bundjalung woman Rhoda Roberts lamented its perfunctory nature, observing that it often “lacks heart”. It can stir the simmering tension over the Australian polity’s proclivity only for empty symbolism as opposed to substantive rights.
There has been a notable proliferation of its use by non-Indigenous Australia in correlation to the diminution of Aboriginal rights, particularly property rights. Of course, many have persuaded themselves that because Aboriginal people do not “own” the land, then the apparent paradox is inconsequential—hence the exaggerated pause on the word “custodianship” in such acknowledgements.
And ironically, during National Reconciliation Week this year, while many were pursuing the to-do list of activities aimed at reconciling the native and coloniser—such as adding native foods to stir-frys, and showcasing the practice of
Acknowledgement of Country—we heard the news that Rio Tinto obliterated from the face of the earth some of the oldest Aboriginal heritage sites known to mankind, believed to connect the ancient polity of that area to 46,000 years ago.
These examples highlight the tensions between acknowledgement protocols and the facts on the ground.
Of greater intrigue, though, is a puzzling incantation that was unilaterally added to the typical acknowledgement phrasing and has raised many eyebrows in the Aboriginal community. This is the recognition of “emerging leaders” or “emerging elders” alongside elders past and present, which is somewhat of a contrivance in a gerontocracy like ours.
For an Aboriginal person, Acknowledgements of Country provoke a variety of reactions. When I was co-commissioner for the Queensland commission of inquiry into Queensland youth detention centres, or chair of the New South Wales inquiry into Aboriginal out-of-home care—bearing witness to the dehumanising and violent behaviour of corrections officers or the unlawful conduct of case workers—acknowledgements were intolerable.
On other occasions I share the sentiment of the very clever young jarjums of Aboriginal TikTok, who wittily convey the awkwardness of being the only Aboriginal person in the room when the Acknowledgement of Country is delivered.
On bad days, an Acknowledgement assumes an elegiac form, a sorrowful lament by the stranger who knows only too well that they have taken your land. On good days, I feel pride that Australians are learning the name of the First Nation of the soil upon which they were born or arrived, or live and work.
It is one thing to have an “acknowledgement” that property rights were taken away; it is another for the rights depriver to add things, unsolicited and unilaterally, to the acknowledgement formula, further weakening our cultureand strengthening their own. Consequently, many view the “emerging leader” coda as an unwelcome addition. How to circumvent the sage advice of elders and battle-weary leaders? “Emerging leaders.”
Who gets to define what an “emerging leader” is? Not the collective. When the Referendum Council engaged the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to organise the constitutional dialogues, it was never debated, let alone disputed, that Traditional Owners and other elders were our cultural authority and would underpin the decision-making of dialogues.
The discomfort with the term “emerging leaders” is far from a repudiation of youth. Our gundoos, our jarjums, our young people, constitute the majority population in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Our young people drive much of what we devote our lives to.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart singles out our young people in detention: “Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”
The uneasiness many feel with the “emerging leader” trope is a lament for the relentless and pernicious chipping away at culture. The Howard years saw the dichotomising of reconciliation, into “practical” and “symbolic” reconciliation. Practical reconciliation meant ostensibly hard-headed policies aimed at socio-economic disadvantage, health, education, employment and housing.
We know now that this approach has incontrovertibly failed to address disadvantage. The matters that Howard regarded as “symbolic” were advocacy for the right to self-determination, an apology, reparations, treaty and land rights. This bifurcation of reconciliation means Australia, for two decades, has delayed grappling with the pillars of reconciliation, truth and justice.
These concerns for the shortcomings of reconciliation align with the sentiment expressed in the constitutional dialogues that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. They also align with the deep discomfort at the “emerging leaders” trope.
Uluru was a game changer. If treaty was the British Crown’s solution to dispossession elsewhere, the Uluru statement is the Australian solution to a very Australian problem.
The dialogues sought to inject the one thing that had been decoupled from the recognition process: truth-telling about Australian history. Uluru reoriented Australian reconciliation to where it should be: what is the truth and what does repair look like? The reform agenda spoke to Voice, Makarrata and Truth.
Some of the Reconciliation Plan (RAP) sector—those who took seriously the work of talking to their Indigenous workforce as core business and not tick-a-box corporate social responsibility—intuitively understood the Uluru statement.
While RAPs represent a “practical reconciliation” approach, the emphasis on “having a say” in practical matters helped the sector’s comprehension of the voice to parliament.
This was an unexpected consequence of Australia’s unconventional approach to reconciliation. Now, these supporters of Uluru no longer need RAPs. RAPs are to the Indigenous workforce what Acknowledgements of Country are to the Australian parliament. A protected voice in the Constitution would mean First Nations matters are core business to the nation, not an add-on.
In National Reconciliation Week, we saw Reconciliation Australia suspend Rio Tinto from its RAP program for destroying ancient Aboriginal sites. Who saw that coming? Reconciliation with teeth!
Since Uluru, we have seen a lot of shifting sand. Solidarity with Black Lives Matter in the United States galvanised a growing sentiment in Australia that the time for change is upon us.
The world is changing beneath our feet. An invitation was issued to the Australian people three years ago at Uluru and support is growing. If not now, when? When our voice is protected in the Constitution from the vagaries of ideology and party politics, we will be heard, and we can have a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia.
It is only then that the acknowledgement of country will become less ritualistic and performative. It will no longer be an Australian welcoming; it will be an Australian homecoming.
Megan Davis is a Cobble Cobble woman from Queensland, a Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Law at UNSW, Balnaves Chair of Constitutional Law, and a member of the Referendum Council.
This article originally ran in the July 2020 issue of The Monthly.
This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Reconciliation News