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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.

  10. Beverley Kilsby

    Their are some good thoughts in this article, and I believe Parliament. can benefit with a faith, even if was not the , Lords Prayer, which is worded well, for all aspects of life, also gives you peace, in times of stress, also personal prayers are helpful, but I guess its up to the individual. Makes me happy to think we value prayer here in Australia, where many other countries do not God Bless Australia

  11. Malcolm Street

    Not of any religion, but I’m appalled that the Lord’s Prayer is used to start Parliament.

    It says to me that the Parliament is a *Christian* institution, or at least one that gives Christianity disproportionate weight.

    It isn’t – it’s supposed to represent *all* of us, whatever our faiths or lack there of.

    For the peak representative body of the Australian people, it’s a bad look.

  12. ronhoenig1

    Firstly, Aboriginal communities welcome non-Aboriginals and Aboriginal people from another countryto their country. Secondly, non-Aboriginals are supposed to acknowledge that the country on which they are located belongs traditionally to the Aboriginal community. That’s right and proper. Or would be, if non-Aboriginals paid any attention to notions of Aboriginal sovereignty, which we have spectacularly failed to do. So, in a sense, it is tokenism. But, if for the miniscule period of time in which the acknowedgment is made, non-Aboriginals who have benefitted so much by the invasion of that territory are reminded of our good fortune then the token is worthwhile. The corollary to that is that it is up to non-indigenous Australians to actually take the next steps. No page has been turned. No new chapter has begun. The book has just been opened and we still haven’t even stared paying the rent

  13. baal

    Why do footballers now think it’s obligatory to lay a palm on their breast when standing for the national anthem? It’s a recently invented age-old tradition – American probably – designed for those who want to look solemn (but who can’t/won’t sing). George Bush Jr did it all the time and the Liberals picked it up and promote it as another way of weaselling people into a blind respect for authority. Abbott is trying to hit as many of those hot buttons as he can before he implodes as a man that crazy surely will.

  14. billie

    Until I heard my first Welcome to Country in 2003 I had no idea who the traditional owners of country were. Welcome to Country reminds whites of the stewardship and love of country of the former owners of the land. Chanting the Our Father at brisk clip is boring tokenism.

  15. Julius

    Boring. Ms Cannold can’t make it other than hypocritical nonsense to have someone in Melbourne (her base) at, say, the NGV give a “welcome to country” (typically an “acknowledgement” of the early 19th century inhabitants though not those their ancestors displaced) delivered to an audience which never includes anyone with any indigenous connection.

    Now let a scholar like Ms Cannold confront the atrocity of modernists departing from the great 1662 Book of Common Prayer with its splendidly traditional gobblydegook. At a recent wedding I had to put up with “Father *who* art in Heaven”, “*on* earth as it is in heaven” and “forgive *those* that trespass against us”. 1928 fiddling it seems. Very disturbing to senior members of our society which is surely something bad in indigenous and invaders’ mores.

  16. John Bennetts

    Two wrongs do not make a right.

    Lord’s Prayer, Hindu chant, welcome to country, whatever… I am nauseated by them all, because of their hollowness, irrelevance and uselessness.

    Why not strip this cr_p away from our lives and get on with living? As a member of a Rotary club, I put up with weekly renditions of “Rotary Grace” at the start of the meeting and the National Anthem at the end. I remain a Rotarian, but these symbolic demonstrations of group-think intended to crowd out other-think are not appreciated.

    They cheapen the institutions upon which they are inflicted and are invariably reflections of the past, intruding rudely into the present.

    The issue is not Lord’s Prayer or Welcome to Country. The real issue is Why Bother?

  17. Liz45

    I agree with the ‘Welcome to Country’. It makes me spend time pondering on the horrific injustices metered out to indigenous people for over 200 yrs. It reminds me that the land I’m standing on was stolen, with a war that lasted over 100 yrs, and that at least 20,000 aboriginal people were murdered; how many in all the violent oppressive behaviours is possibly impossible to calculate, but??? (hardly a war when one side has all the weapons, including diseases and poisons). Aboriginal people never relinquished ownership of their land(this fact was acknowledged in the British parliament, but not here?) and until we have a Treaty then it will always be relevant. In fact, I’d like to see the local/native language/s taught in the schools near me as an important part of acknowledgement and reconciliation! I’d like to learn at least one!

    If, at these gatherings, there’s acknowledgement of a Governor General, or PM or Premier or Mayor or whoever, then the least that can be done is to acknowledge the original inhabitants and custodians of the land, as aboriginal people believe, that their spirits are still here anyway! When did ‘god’ give the land to govts and/or real estate agents anyway?

    Abbott is either insensitive, a racist, stupid and/or an egotist, or a combination of all!

  18. John Bennetts

    Liz, you are proposing a treaty? With whom? How, precisely, do you nintend to persue this lofty and unachievable goal?

    The undeniable fact is that this country has been governed from shore to shore by a power other than those who you propose to enter with into a treaty. First, England, then Australia, with a bit of to-and-fro in the middle when States were created.

    Which war lasted 100 years? When the Poms expressed whatever they expressed along the lines of recognition that the aborinal people may have omitted to relinquish property or land rights or whatever, I presume in the absence of attribution that you mean that this was a meaningless and symbolic action taken well after they had passed the baton to the Commonwealth of Australia and the various States.

    Just how the Poms intended their action to achieve anything positive is beyond me, if in fact this ever happened. Perhaps they were just keen to provide a few debating points to the locals to use in order to stir up the colonial government. The Poms never did know when to butt out.

  19. Liz45

    John Bennetts – Between the Aboriginal people and the rest of us! That clearly states history – the real history! As it is now, aboriginal people aren’t included in the Constitution – we could re-write that perhaps, instead! They aren’t guaranteed anything – now, not even not to be treated in a racist manner, as this has also been removed!

    I’ve read Henry Reynolds; watched First Australians and many others, including listening to aboriginal people speak of their history! Peter Stewart’s ‘Demons at Dusk’ which he spent about 20 yrs researching. Like Henry Reynolds, Peter Stewart went and did much research in England – Parliamentary papers, library, newspapers etc!

    Why Weren’t We Told?
    This Whispering in Our Hearts – both Henry Reynolds

    A Rape of the Soul So Profound – Peter ?????

    Venezuela re-wrote their Constitution about 8 yrs ago – the people participated, then voted on the draft, then voted on the finished document. It includes indigenous people(who are the majority there – also the poorest?) women, minorities etc?


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