Australian cultural traditions are in a period of rapid and significant change. Established attitudes towards sections of the community have been challenged, contested and changed since the most recent social disturbance during the Second World War. This period of social change has been facilitated by an almost unbroken period of economic growth with concomitant growth in personal and community wealth and material wellbeing. What is not so clear as to whether there has been similar growth in communal social wellbeing. In a liberal democracy, change as a result of democratic contestation is regarded as the proper procedure to facilitate social evolution.
While the Australian colonies were among the first to grant women the right to vote, until recently, women played a subservient role in politics. That women serve as Prime Ministers and Premiers is an indication of significant social change in that aspect of Australian life. The Family Court has implemented a change in the status of women in relationships. Violence against women is another area that is currently contested. The Equal Pay for Equal Work campaign played an important role in promoting economic equality of women, although the generally accepted notion that women are better off as ‘independent’ members of the workforce rather than as ‘dependent’ members of the family (cf. the 1907 Harvester Judgement) is more likely to be challenged as the current notion of paid employment becomes unsustainable in the face of radical technological change.
Gender equality has become an accepted notion. This is a far cry from the attitudes held 60 years ago when police sought to break up a gay and lesbian ‘riot’ that has since become an annual TV event. Homosexuality was a criminal offence, and now the 2017 Marriage Act Amendment means the right to marry in Australia is no longer determined by sex or gender. Such has been the change in gender equality that the range of groups seeking to escape discrimination is verging on an alphabet soup.
Welcome to Country
The 1967 amendment to the Australian Constitution recognised those identifying as Aboriginal as Australian citizens. The 1992 High Court Mabo decision disposed of the legal status of ‘terra nullius’ and acknowledged traditional rights and native title of all indigenous groups in Australia. The 2008 National Apology by the Prime Minister marked an acceptance of responsibility for past actions that, no matter what justification existed at the time, could no longer be regarded as meeting current standards. On the day before the National Apology, the opening of Federal Parliament included a Welcome to Country ceremony. In 2017, delegates to the First Nations Constitutional Convention released the Uluru Statement from the Heart to ‘seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country.’ This is one of a range of matters currently contested in Australia.
Citizenship and native title are generally accepted as part of indigenous life in contemporary Australian society and accommodated by the non-indigenous in Australian society. A Welcome to Country is now a common event at official functions of all kinds (see the Western Australian Department of Education Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country Protocols) but has mutated over time and can serve different purposes. It is not always clear what purpose is being served in a particular event nor whether the participants are aware of and commit to the consequences of the ceremony. That is one reason given in the past for traditional indigenous people not performing a Welcome to Country for non-indigenous people – they would not understand.
For those indigenous people in Australia who in pre-colonial times practised a Welcome to Country ceremony and/or a smoking ceremony for indigenous visitors, it served purposes similar to what passport visas and quarantine now does for Australian border control. It permits the peaceful entry of visitors to country owned by those deciding who shall enter. So, not anyone can perform a meaningful Welcome to Country ceremony, and not everyone is a meaningful recipient of such a welcome. Those performing the ceremony need to be authorised to give permission to enter. Those resident in the country do not need such a welcome, although COVID-19 border control practices in Australia have changed perceptions of the right of Australian citizens to re-enter the country.
A meaningful Welcome to Country ceremony is conducted by duly authorised persons affirming their right to decide who enters their country and conveying to the visitors the right to enter the country in a peaceful manner. By participating in the ceremony, the visitors acknowledge the rights of the owners, abide by the accepted conditions of entry, and show respect. Most Australians have equivalent protocols for entry of visitors into their homes, e.g., knocking on the front door. In the case of some Aboriginal groups, it is polite to wait by the front gate to be given permission to enter a residential property.
The current forms of Welcome to Country ceremony for non-indigenous audiences are a recent invention, claimed by Ernie Dingo and Dr Richard Walley. They were asked by Māori and Cook Islander performers at an arts festival in 1976 to provide a welcome. It is open for every person providing a welcome to do so in a manner they deem appropriate for their audience and circumstance.
Acknowledgement of Country
Many Welcome to Country ceremonies are conducted by officials having status related to the event but having no indigenous related status and certainly no local indigenous country authority. Often, the audience is comprised of persons normally resident in the area in which the event is held and so not in need of a welcome. In such cases, it is not a Welcome to Country but rather an Acknowledgement of local indigenous land rights and paying respect to the local indigenous population whether present at the event or not. The official is acknowledging that they recognise native title and pay respect to the local indigenous people. In so doing, they invite the audience to re-commit to such matters. This acknowledgement has now progressed beyond addressing public audiences at meetings. Public TV broadcasters now acknowledge native title in their news programs.
Until such time as recognition of native title and respect for indigenous people in Australia are not contentious issues, then some form of Acknowledgement can serve a useful purpose. An Acknowledgement cannot serve its purpose if it is confused with a Welcome to Country. Each should be conducted at public events when and where they are appropriate so they may achieve the intended outcomes. Having an Acknowledgement disguised as a Welcome to Country at all official events seems destined to render both ineffective and lead to their slow extinction.
While it is important for Australians to acknowledge native title and pay respect to indigenous people, there are broader concerns for all Australians that may benefit from overt official attention and affirmation in the form of a Welcome to People.
The need for a Welcome to People
In welcoming participants to an event, an official may offer an official welcome in which a specific message may be conveyed. This goes beyond a personal welcome offered by the individual. It presents an official position and invites participants to acknowledge and re-commit to that position. A Welcome to People would provide a personal welcome but also present an official position acknowledging what it is to be a person in Australian society and inviting participants at the event to re-commit to that account.
What need is there to present and re-commit to an account of what it is to be a person in contemporary Australian society? A century ago, Australia was a bi-polar society with the more affluent rural and urban colonial gentry aping English manners and imperial aspirations. The less affluent tended to cohere around myths of the ruggedly independent individuals who looked after their mates in a crisis, whether in the bush or factory or trench. This division was reflected in Australian political parties, but the division was not absolute. Even the 1950s style neo-conservative politician John Howard espoused mateship as an Australian value. Much of the work to set out the details of the ideal Australian society during the first half of the twentieth century was done by popular literature, radio and film. An influx of non-conforming European migrants after the Second World War was dealt with by making them New Australians. The other non-conformists, the Aboriginals, were faced with the official policy of assimilation into Australian society.
The extended period of post-war national and individual growth in wealth made it more possible for individuals to do without communal support and the limitations it imposed on their freedom of choice. In general, it made for a period of social mobility, from country to city and from lower-paid occupations to better-paid occupations. That new wealth made it possible for successive governments to partially privatise education by subsidising private schools, to thereby reduce demands for government schooling and create parental choice, and by imposing fees on tertiary education to recognise the private good of a university degree. With Australian borders opening after having been shut for two years due to COVID-19, universities can resume their lucrative role as migration camps for international students awaiting permanent residency. The new wealth made it possible and desirable for women to break free from unpaid domestic work and enter the paid workforce, thereby escalating the expectations for a bigger house and mortgage but only for a decreasing percentage of the population. Trust in government has decreased as the voters became increasingly aware that Australia has the best governments money can buy.
While increasing wealth made it possible to challenge dominant social expectations, it took other factors to shape those challenges. The social changes indicated in the first section reflected an increasing individuality and a willingness to explore new places and new experiences. In the 1970s, the anti-authoritarian freedom of the hippies gave way to the neo-liberal freedom of Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address to the Nation (1989) ‘man is not free unless government is limited.’ By limiting government, it was possible for transnational corporations and exploiting small businesses to render collective industrial action ineffective and leave individuals free to negotiate whatever their employers were willing to give. For those who had looked to government and regulation to protect them, they were confronted by Margaret Thatcher’s (1989) interview for Woman’s Own (‘No Such Thing as Society’), which claimed they were ‘casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’ Collective action for the common good became an unacceptable notion. Social responsibility was a constraint on individual freedom.
In Australia, the combination of neo-liberal Paul Keating’s globalisation and deregulation of the economy and John Howard’s social conservatism consolidated outcomes that began with the abolition of the White Australia Policy and protectionism and peaked with the collapse of the car manufacturing industry. They both oversaw the politicisation and diminution of the public service as it became the public sector. Australia’s extended economic boom was underpinned by mining, agriculture, tourism, education and financial services. For many Australians, life was participation in an increasingly casualised, poorly paid social services sector or an increasingly well-paid trades sector. However, the overall consequence was a transfer of wealth from the middle and lower classes to the very wealthy.
John Howard’s participation in the ‘History Wars’ and his efforts to ‘recreate’ a conservative Australian society sharing a set of core values as taught in schools had high political visibility but limited social impact. It was, however, a misguided attempt to impose his own values in response to a real problem. The problem is to articulate the values shared in a liberal democracy, the limits of tolerance of difference, and the accepted means by which change is to be made to what counts as being a person in Australia. Rather than attempt a top-down imposition of the answers to these problems, my preferred approach is to facilitate widespread democratic participation in considering actual local situations and working out the existing trust relations before considering what other viable options are available. This serves as a basis for the ongoing political activity of changing Australian society and its citizens for the better. The schools help initiate the young into that changing society. The young learn what to trust in their society and how to trust change. They do not need to memorise an Australian version of an authoritative text with universal answers in order to become a good Australian.
Welcome to People
So what would a Welcome to People do to address the problem in an acceptable and effective way? It would affirm official respect for the efforts and achievements of all those who have gone before us. It would invite the audience in their particular situation to re-affirm their respect for the past as manifest in the present. It would officially recognise individual responsibility for care of the self and individual and collective responsibility for care of others in the present. It would officially accept the individual and collective duty to bequeath to future generations the best possible conditions in which they may thrive.
Every feature of our current condition is the result of the collective actions of those who have gone before us and the trust relations to which they have been committed. Our material conditions and systems of managing our environment have been created by our forebears. Our way of speaking and thinking about things is the result of the long evolution of the traditions of our civilisation, as are the different ways devised by other civilisations. Our ambitions and standards of success are part of those evolving traditions in which we participate and make changes. Respect for our inheritance of what works (and what doesn’t) is a prerequisite for sound judgement as to what to trust as a basis for successful action.
It is important to officially recognise the individual responsibility to take on increasing care of the self as one matures and becomes less dependent on others for survival and wellbeing. In so doing, it involves recognition that dependence on others always remains in various ways and brings with it a responsibility to provide such care for others. This care involves an ambition to be the best possible person in the circumstances, in the best possible society, in the best possible world. The best possible world will have a diverse array of different evolving traditions, just as biodiversity is the best biological bet for the planet.
As a Welcome to People involves acknowledgement and an invitation to commit to the past and present, it also involves the future. We have inherited a set of conditions that we have done our best to improve while here, so too we should seek to hand on to our descendants the best possible set of traditions in our society in the best possible world.
A Welcome to People would not, of itself, bring about a collective social effort to solve the problem of articulating the values shared in a liberal democracy, the limits of tolerance of difference, and the accepted means by which change is to be made to what counts as being a person in Australia. It might, however, motivate and legitimate other efforts to address that ongoing problem.
As an opening to my Address in Reply to my children and friends’ contributions to my 80th birthday celebration, I offered a version of the following Welcome to People in lieu of a Welcome to Country, or indeed, an Acknowledgement (my bureaucrat daughter did that).
I welcome everyone here today and, in so doing, acknowledge that we all share the trust relations that are the result of the efforts and achievements of our forebears. Without the language, culture, technology and the material conditions they bequeathed us, we would not exist and could not thrive.
I accept the responsibility to care for my self so as to live the best life possible and accept the responsibility to care for others so that they may flourish, each according to their own lights.
I accept the duty to pass on the best possible world to our descendants, as was done for us.
A good place to start the necessary ongoing conversation about what it is to be a person in Australia would be to have a Welcome to People at the start of the day in public schools. This would be like the Pledge of Allegiance in American public schools (without the flag worship, of course). Private schools may choose to add this to such welcoming prayers or other rituals they use to affirm their identity. The conversation would be conducted in more depth in the civic education curriculum context. All this would feed into the wider conversation that is politics in a liberal democratic society.