Home' Policy Magazine : Policy Vol 33 - No 4 Contents 47
POLICY • Vol. 33 No. 4 • Summer 2017-2018
current narrative is from another world. Their most
pressing problems do not involve the semantics of a
Welcome to Country ceremony at a Sydney bank,
nor adequate representation on television discussion
panels. Senior Indigenous leaders such as Nyunggai
Warren Mundine have decried the dynamics of the
current situation. In September Mundine spoke out
in the Australian Financial Review:
Last month I spent a few weeks in remote
and regional Australia talking non-stop
with Aboriginal people. Meanwhile,
a debate raged about statues. How many
times do you think anyone mentioned
statues to me during my trips? Exactly zero.
No one talked to me about constitutional
recognition either. Or about local councils
who banned Australia Day, supposedly in
In reality, the ongoing socioeconomic
disadvantages Indigenous people face are far more
pressing. Only 18% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander families in remote areas own their own
homes and unemployment is rife. Meanwhile, the
Closing the Gap strategy is failing in six out of its
seven measures, and is in serious need of review.
Greater focus should be placed on solving these
issues by improving education and healthcare and
promoting Indigenous-owned business rather than
spending days debating the flag protocols of the
Queensland Ambulance Service.
Finding a balance
Symbolism has held and always will hold an
important place in society. However, finding a
balance is essential to ensure that the desire to
acknowledge does not unintentionally undermine
the people these practices are attempting to
represent. Many acts of symbolism today do not
take these dynamics into account. Some have
become overly prescriptive. Others are more
about image than any tangible benefits they may
provide to Indigenous people, with the growth in
symbolism creating a discourse that is often at odds
with the reality on the ground. More than anything,
Indigenous people want improved socio-economic
outcomes. Symbolic acts are important, but they
aren’t going to close the gap.
While they won’t bring quantifiable benefits,
one could argue that the Sydney University
trees represent a relatively balanced approach
to symbolism. Despite the rather tenuous link
drawn between Indigenous people in Brazil and
Australia—the jacaranda is native to South America
although its name is thought to derive from the
Indigenous Guarani language—the flame tree does
provide a meaningful connection for Indigenous
students. Moreover, the trees do not force them
to ascribe to racially-specific policies nor do they
affect the daily university experience of those non-
Indigenous students who may not wish to participate
in acts of acknowledgement. While some people
may appreciate the symbolism behind the two trees,
others may just see them as an aesthetically pleasing
contrast of vivid red and purple blossom when
1 ‘Flame Tree Joins Jacaranda Companion in Quadrangle’
(21 July 2017), http://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/
2 Emma Kowal, ‘ Welcome to Country: Acknowledgement,
Belonging and White Anti-Racism’, Cultural Studies Review
21:2 (2015), 173–204.
3 Matthew Clayfield, ‘Melbourne Council Makes
Acknowledgement of Traditional Land Owners Optional’,
ABC Radio (15 February 2017).
4 Kowal, ‘Welcome to Country’.
5 Reconciliation Australia, 2016 RAP Impact Measurement
Report, pages 6-11, https://www.reconciliation.org.au/
6 Patricia Karvelas, ‘It’s Time to Tackle Token Reconciliation,’
Say Ros and John Moriarty’, The Australian (19 November
7 Walanga Muru, ‘Aboriginal Cultural Protocols’, (Macquarie
University: Office of Indigenous Strategy), page 13.
8 University of Sydney, ‘Support for Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Students’, http://sydney.edu.au/study/
9 Human Resources Unit, University of South Australia,
‘Aboriginal Employment—Guide for Supervisors’, http://
10 Andrew Trounson, ‘Support Centres Can Hold Back
Indigenous Students,’ The Australian (20 April 2011).
11 Emma Kowal, Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous
Australia (Berghahn Books, 2015), 103.
12 Nyunggai Warren Mundine, ‘Indigenous Enterprise: Work
Means More than Statues and Dates’, Australian Financial
Review (13 September 2017).
13 Felicity Caldwell, ‘MP Asks Why Indigenous Flags, but Not
State Flags, Are Provided to Ambos’, The Sydney Morning
Herald (26 July 2017).
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