BBC BLOGS - Nick Bryant's Australia
« Previous | Main | Next »

Tokenism or recognition?

Nick Bryant | 08:18 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

A meaningless gesture designed primarily to expiate white guilt? Or a necessary and welcome acknowledgment of the traditional, indigenous owners of the land?

Many official, corporate and cultural functions in Australia begin with a brief statement recognising the "first Australians" as the country's traditional owners. This, for instance, is how Kevin Rudd started a recent speech before an Australian Medical Association parliamentary dinner in Canberra: by "acknowledging the first Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as among the oldest continuing cultures in human history".

But Tony Abbott, the new opposition leader, earlier this month sparked a strong-worded national debate by arguing that the practice has become an empty gesture.

In an interview with the Adelaide Advertiser, Mr Abbott noted: "I guess this is the kind of genuflection to political correctness that these guys (government ministers) feel they have to make." Sometimes, he noted, it was appropriate, "but certainly I think in many contexts it seems like out-of-place tokenism".

The famously outspoken Mr Abbott has been accused of reopening the culture wars, the ongoing debate over how Australians should regard their history, and of playing "dog whistle" politics in an election year.

But disregarding the politics for one moment, what about the substance of his argument?

"It's not tokenism, it's actually recognition," according to Glen Kelly of the South West Land and Sea Council in Western Australia. "In Nyoongah culture, and, I dare say, in Aboriginal culture across Australia, it's very important that when you visit someone else's country that you recognise the people who are there and get ceremonially introduced and accepted to that country."

Here's an alternative view from Sue Gordon, a retired indigenous Australian magistrate who was a founding member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. "When different governments first started it, it seemed like it was paternalistic," she told The Australian. "I understand in most states and territories it's policy, they've got to do it. When things are dictated I often think, well, is it genuine?" Darryl Pearce of the Alice Springs native title body Lhere Artepe echoed that view when he noted there was often a "hollowness" in the gesture on certain occasions.

Others have highlighted what they see as the intellectual inconsistency of Mr Abbott's position. He supports the saying of the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of each parliamentary sitting and embraces the rituals of Catholicism (he trained, for a time, to be a priest) - empty gestures to some, vital articles of faith for others.

Noel Pearson, one of the country's most widely respected indigenous leaders and thinkers, argued over the weekend that Mr Abbott is playing to the Australians who think that their indigenous compatriots have been given too much. "The people who resent Aboriginal Australians taking their fair share are as resentful about immaterial things as they are about material resources."

He went on: "It is time to realize that the core of anti-Aboriginal thinking is the figure of thought that 'the Aborigines have been given too much X', where 'X' would be something tangible, material, political or cultural. At the same time, he said the acknowledgments could sometimes be 'tedious or silly or tokenistic."

"We all see and hear things that make us cringe sometimes. The sensible thing is to be gracious and let other people do what they think is proper."


or register to comment.

More from this blog...

Topical posts on this blog


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

    Latest contributors

    BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

    This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.