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Mar 18, 2010

God and Aborigines under Abbott

The "Welcome to Country" skirmish was a call to Howard’s lost battlers: voters who deserted the Coalition for Labor at the last election, writes Dr Leslie Cannold.

Sometimes, a conversation opens up in national politics that is so riddled with inconsistency, so revelatory of hypocrisy, that the only sane response is to quake in horror. Quake either at the intellectual failings of our representatives in Canberra, or their mercenary double-standards.

I speak of Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s recent observation that Welcome to Country ceremonies are a “genuflection to political correctness” and “out-of-place tokenism”. Or, as coalition MP Wilson Tuckey and Senate Opposition leader Eric Abetz put it, constitute faddish, farcical, paternalistic formalism no longer appropriate in 21st century Australia.  “Why don’t we acknowledge a whole host of other people and … deities?” Abetz asked.

Columnist Miranda Devine also feels worried. On Monday night, she told the audience of ABC TV’s Q&A that if ceremonies that acknowledge the original inhabitants of Australia are not “done with … feeling”, or undertaken as a “mandated practice”, they could become “ritualistic and useless”.

Interesting observations, though not ones we have heard from conservative politicians or commentators before. Indeed, when a similar issue arose in the late 1990s and again in 2008 — about the ongoing relevance of the Lord’s Prayer as the daily convocation for both houses of Federal Parliament — conservatives were either silent, or had something quite different to say.

In 1997, Bob Brown moved that the Lord’s Prayer be replaced by an invitation to Senators to pray or reflect on their responsibilities. The motion, referred to the Procedures Committee, was ultimately rejected, on the notably generous grounds that those senators who joined in the prayer considered its retention important, and those who did not deem it important, didn’t think the issue mattered enough to upset those who cared. At that time the Catholic Independent Senator Brian Harradine spoke at length about his view that Australia’s heritage and history justified the prayer’s retention, as well as his belief that retaining it had been the right move. “At this time of all times, we need the guidance of God…”

When Speaker of the House of Representatives  Harry Jenkins questioned the relevance of the prayer a few years back, the response was similar. The then-Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Tony Abbot said he thought the Lord’s Prayer should stay, as it expressed principles universal to all religions. The now Shadow Finance Minister Barnaby Joyce defended the prayer on the grounds that while, “…reading the Lord’s Prayer is encouraged, it is certainly not compulsory”.

If the legitimacy of Welcome to Country rests on it being spontaneous, sincere, feeling-filled and done only where accompanied by similar acknowledgements of the beliefs and practices of the many peoples who populate Australia, then surely this must also apply to the Lord’s Prayer.

If it is right that in a secular multi-faith democracy such as Australia, our representatives — some of whom follow non-Christians faiths or are atheists — start the day with a Christian invocation because that prayer references our history and heritage, and no one is forced to say it, then retaining Welcome to Country can be justified on the same grounds.

If secularist and non-Christian politicians can be generous to their Christian colleagues when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, why cannot Christian political leaders be equally as generous to Australia’s first people, the Aborigines?

Consistency on this question is not just required of us intellectually, but morally, too. Whatever brand of ethics you support — religious or secular — moral prescriptions must be universal. In other words, as reasons “because that’s me you’re talking about”, or “Christianity is different”, don’t make the cut.

Given this, does the rise of this latest skirmish in the culture wars prove our leaders are intellectually lazy, or just plain hypocritical?

On the evidence, the answer seems to be both, but I think it’s worse than that.

The Welcome to Country skirmish was a dog-whistle, not just to the racists who are part of the Conservative base, but to Howard’s lost battlers: voters who deserted the coalition for Labor at the last election. By raising questions about Welcome to Country, Abbott was promising these segments of the electorate that he could, and would, take them back. Take them back to the days when selfishness was right because it was cloaked in Christian morality. To the time when they could feel good about the mystifyingly named “elites” getting it in the neck in policy and rhetorical terms — working women, single mothers, Aborigines, boat people, aborting women and lesbian parents — because this was what was necessary to preserve Australia for all of us.

This was our lot when it came to God, history, policy and politics under Howard. Now, under Abbott, we know it will be the same.

Dr Leslie Cannold is an ethicist, researcher, author and commentator.

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20 thoughts on “God and Aborigines under Abbott

  1. Holden Back

    Why is it self-professed Christians are so frequently the least charitable od all politicians?

  2. stephen martin

    Considering that almost all the “Country” has been alienated, leaving only that, that until recently was unwanted or unused, to be claimed by aboriginal people ” welcome to country” would seem to be fairly pointless.
    Incidentally Irfan isn’t it “hear, hear”.

  3. SusieQ

    Well written Leslie. Who can beat a politician for cynicism and hypocrisy?

  4. Greg Moran

    The acknowledgment to traditional owners at Brisbane St Patrick’s Dinner received enthusiastic applause by attendees. Though it is done every year this is the first time the crowd applauded. Hope Tony Abbot who was at the head table got the message.

  5. Jim Reiher

    Great article.

    Holden: some Christian politicians are more gracious than others. Rudd of course is an example of one who does use the welcome to country ceremony without insulting qualifications like we heard from Abbott. I am no Rudd – fan, but he does fare better on this, than his opponent (who I am even less a fan of).

    I think the difference is between Christian politicians who start from two different starting points.

    1) There are those that say: we live in a pluralistic and multi-faith (including no faith) group of people. We have to live and let live. If we want to be respected and treated well, we should respect and treat well all others who may or may not coincide with my beliefs and lifestyle.


    2) There are those who say: we live in a land where it is my duty to try to impose what I think is best on everyone else. I will not respect or treat equally all others, (some yes, but some others… never) because I believe my way is the right and best way and I can impose it on everyone else.

    Of course, non-Christian, and other faith, or no-faith, politicians can be divided into those two groups too. Racism is not just a conservative Christian disease.

  6. abarker

    Y’know I think both are rubbish, but, this article is 100% correct. All I can do is look at Tony Abbott, shrug and say ‘He’s got you there mate’.

  7. jungarrayi

    When I first heard about this “controversy” I got seriously confused. Here I was agreeing with the Mad Monk! I also thought that it was tokenism.
    Thinking this out and listening to the arguments I’ve changed my mind. Welcome to Country or whatever you call it is a last remaining vestige of respecting and acknowledging the vibrant cultures that existed and still exist in Australia. It also acknowledges those that despite having had their languages taken from them and their societies seriously damaged by assimilationist policies, have managed to survive.
    However when politicians such as Jenny Macklin pay lip service to Welcome to Country rituals whilst simultaneously being a driving force behind the travesty that is the NT Intervention, it isn’t just tokenism but it’s political opportunism and highly offensive cynicism.
    At Yuendumu School the current Education theme is Myths and Legends, Fairytales and stories with a moral. They’ve studying the Trojan Horse, Pandora’s box, the Pied Piper, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs and Green Eggs and Ham.
    Superimposed is the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training’s “4-hours English only” policy.
    What use are a few “Welcome to Country” words, when it isn’t recognised in practice that here in Yuendumu we have a vibrant beautiful expressive Language with a vast landscape of “Myths and Legends, Fairytales and stories with a moral”, that the implementation of current policies are in the process of denying to Warlpiri Children.

  8. davidk

    Great article. Acknowledging indigenous ownership after 200 years of abuse is the very least we all can do in an effort to heal the rift. Wasn’t it hypocrites who purportedly demanded the Romans nail Christ up? They have been prevalent in all churches ever since.

  9. Mahaut

    Good article. Welcome to country is important ritual which indicates respect for the Aboriginal people who originally lived on the land. I think it is has meaning for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike.
    The continuation of the use of the Lord’s Prayer in the Parliament of secular Australia is a farce. No argument of any rigour or intelligence could made which supports its use by our Parliament.