Editorial: Parliament welcomes Indigenous heritage

The first hung parliament in 70 years was officially opened on 28 September with an Aboriginal Welcome to Country smoking ceremony initiating the proceedings.

While Welcome to Country ceremonies have been part of Local Government events for some years, this was the first time it has been incorporated into the official Federal Parliamentary protocol.

The ceremony will now be a standard part of proceedings for each new Parliament, and every sitting day will start with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners.

It is important to note the difference between ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ and ‘Welcome to Country’, as they have very specific and different rules, protocols and purposes from each other.

Both are significant and relevant to respecting and honouring the Indigenous people of Australia.

Acknowledgment of Country can be performed by anyone – from the traditional owners to non Indigenous people. It is the act of acknowledging the traditional owners, the ancestors, and the land on which we stand.

Welcome to Country can only be performed by the traditional owner of the land on which we stand, preferably by an Elder. It is the act of welcoming strangers onto the traditional lands and is generally accompanied by an exchange of gifts or a payment of thanks and honouring to the traditional owners who have welcomed the visitors or guests.

In some cases, the traditional owners also place a blessing of safety on the visitor/s. This was the case at the opening of the 43rd Parliament, with Federal MPs and Senators gathered at the front of Parliament House invited forward for a cleansing from the smoke.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott both took part in the ceremony, which was conducted by representatives from Aboriginal communities around Canberra.

Prime Minister Gillard said the Welcome to Country “is a powerful demonstration that Australia’s Indigenous heritage now lies at the heart of our public life.”

The statement was fitting, especially with the country’s first ever Indigenous member of the House of Representatives present to take part and be sworn in.

Member for Hasluck in Western Australia, Ken Wyatt, is a member of the Liberal Party and is just the third Indigenous Australian elected to the Parliament following Senators Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway.

The question of whether or not we should begin public gatherings by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land is often a topic of much debate.

But with Indigenous Australians having occupied the land for some 40,000 years – a far stretch longer than the Europeans, whose presence dates back only 230 years – we, as a nation, have much to learn from the special relationship between the people and the land, provided we care to listen.

It is also an opportunity for us to show that we value the reconciliation process.

When Indigenous peoples travelled through the lands of neighbours, they understood that it was customary to acknowledge the people of those lands.

When we show that we are learning from the traditional custodians of our land, it shows that Australian society has a commitment to reconciliation and inclusiveness.

Hopefully the 43rd Parliament will be one that does far more than simply acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and their aspirations, but learns from them as well.