July 2020


Reconciliation and the promise of an Australian homecoming

By Megan Davis

Marc McCormack/AAP Images

What would make an acknowledgement of country more welcome

There is an uncritical but flawed assumption that Aboriginal people are unquestionably Australian republicans. Professor Marcia Langton, responding to republican ridicule of the pomp and circumstance of the British royal family, pointed out that many Aboriginal people in fact have deep respect for the ceremony of the Crown, because our culture understands the power of ritual and symbolism. Such customary protocols speak to the conservatism of culture – it is slow to change − but provide continuity between the past and the present. 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, the legal year, 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. The odd politician raises questions about relevance or empty symbolism, apropos the disadvantage in many communities, but, by and large, it is accepted. 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 distinguishing feature is that 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 and actor 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 of 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. Perhaps more unnerving is that no one can pinpoint from where precisely the artifice emerged. 

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. 

For other Aboriginal people it incites feelings of resentment. I recall an incident involving a non-Aboriginal colleague who was outraged when an Aboriginal woman, invited to deliver an acknowledgement – which sometimes Aboriginal people do when it is not their own country – refused to do so when she took to the lectern. She declared the acknowledgement protocol as meaningless and existing only to assuage the guilt of white Australians. My colleague was appalled because she saw herself as well-meaning and regarded the political stance of the Aboriginal woman impolite. Despite the likely antecedents of this anger being explained to her, she found it near impossible to view the world through this Aboriginal woman’s eyes. It reminded me of behavioural scientist Paul Bloom’s argument “against empathy”: empathy can be a blockage to law reform because it does not allow good intentions to transcend into meaningful change. These allies are the ones who think symbolic recognition is sufficient: anything is better than nothing, they chant. 

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 culture and strengthening their own. A few unscientific enquiries by Indigenous Twitter once traced the origins of the “emerging leaders” to the Queensland bureaucracy. This is probably an urban myth. However, it would come as no surprise that it originated in a bureaucracy, given the role bureaucracies have played in assimilation, and continue to play. From the time anthropologists ran Indigenous affairs to the current Hunger Games-esque National Indigenous Australians Agency, the state has sought overt and covert ways to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples. 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 socioeconomic 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. And if Howard decoupled the rights agenda from reconciliation, the reconciliation movement aligned with Howard. 

Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs), a very Australian innovation dating back to 2006, became the centrepiece of practical reconciliation. They set targets for Indigenous procurement and Indigenous employment. Over the years, this approach deeply troubled many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because they felt that reconciliation in Australia had been separated from the truth-telling and the pursuit of justice: what is the truth and what does repair look like?

Harvard sociologist Charlotte Lloyd studied Australia’s reconciliation process because she found it was unique in the world. While almost all reconciliation processes derive necessarily from the foundations of truth and justice, Australia’s did not. It cannot be viewed as sitting within a continuum of truth-telling from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody or the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, because of the countervailing policy considerations that sit behind the genesis of the legislated reconciliation process. Lloyd studied the RAP program involving nearly 1000 governments, corporates and community organisations and covering 25 per cent of the Australian workforce. She describes this approach as “creative reconciliation”, as it provides practical actions for citizen engagement and corporate citizenship, so that reconciliation is not left entirely to the government. Lloyd’s conclusion, though, was that RAPs do not “invite the deep consideration of violent and racist policies of the Australian state that led to current inequalities”. Lloyd argues that RAPs do not associate reconciliation “with structural political change such as land rights, indigenous sovereignty, or treaty”. More importantly, she argues that: 

… ultimately RAPs promote understandings of indigenous difference that leave organizations and their members ill equipped to understand persistent sources of conflict in indigenous and non-indigenous relations, particularly those stemming from indigenous aspirations for social change, that would have to be driven by structural political reform, rather than by voluntary gestures from private individuals.

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 gamechanger. 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: 

The invasion of our land was met by resistance. But colonisation and dispossession cut deeply into our societies, and we have mourned the ancestors who died in the resistance, and the loss of land, language and culture. Through the activism of our leaders we have achieved some hard-won gains and recovered control over some of our lands. After the Mabo case, the Australian legal system can no longer hide behind the legal fiction of terra nullius. But there is Unfinished Business to resolve.

Following the work of the Referendum Council, it is no secret that the politicians took a long time to understand this reorienting of the reconciliation movement. To this day, Malcolm Turnbull still does not. But some of the 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 kick Rio Tinto out of 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. Aboriginal lawyer and Barkindji woman Gemma McKinnon, whom I mentored through the Uluru process, put it this way: 

Australian governments have become comfortable with the idea of symbolic forms of Reconciliation. We have endured years of lemon myrtle-dusted morning teas, flag raisings, and screenings of Rabbit Proof Fence, yet institutionalised racism prevails everywhere I look. The idea that First Nations people deserve a constitutionally enshrined role in our political system is deemed repugnant by the political elite like Turnbull and Wyatt. Symbolism has got us nowhere.

I would call Gemma an “emerging leader”, but she knows, as I do, that only our elders can bestow such a title. 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

Megan Davis is a Cobble Cobble woman from Queensland, a pro vice chancellor and professor of law at UNSW, and a member of the Referendum Council.

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