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Welcome to Country: more than a symbol

By Malcolm King - posted Thursday, 26 May 2011


Some years ago I was sitting listening to a Welcome to Country speech by a Koori elder at Melbourne University.

A small boy sitting next to me asked his Mum what the speech was about and she said it was simply recognizing that there were other people living here before white people came. It was a sign of respect.

The Welcome to Country speech only takes a few minutes but the recent decision by the Baillieu Government to downgrade its part in public affairs traduces the respect that the Koori people deserve.

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Premier Baillieu and the Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Jeanette Powell’s decision was revealed just a day before the start of the AFL's Indigenous Round. Up there for timing.

While critics of the Welcome to Country speech say it’s symbolism or ‘a waste of time’ (commentator Andrew Bolt), these acknowledgements are an important part of the reconciliation movement - something which Powell says she is a part of.

A statement from Powell’s office reads:

Acknowledgement of Country is not mandated, never has been, and nor should it be. The Coalition Government believes that such acknowledgements may be diminished if they become tokenistic.

For an Acknowledgement of Country to be 'tokenistic', the individual making the speech must not believe in what he or she is saying. We would say they are paying ‘lip service’.

Whether a symbol’s meaning is conveyed - whether it’s a dance, a painting or a flag - depends on the importance a witness places upon it.

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What we have here is a dog whistle. It harks back to the Howard style of government of setting group against group, of dividing the politics up on the basis of cultural assumptions.

Understand this - symbols are the stuff of politics. If you get rid of the symbol, you change the politics.

There is a map available on a Victorian Government website which shows 68 recorded Aboriginal murder and massacre sites which all occurred between 1836 and 1853.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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