All welcome to country

| November 27, 2023

Reconciliation Australia is the lead body for reconciliation in Australia. Their mission is to promote and facilitate reconciliation by building relationships, respect and trust between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Reconciliation Australia’s Welcome to Country statement is: “Reconciliation Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.” Similar welcomes are now given on many occasions, including formal ceremonies involving public officials, sporting events, social gatherings, conferences and meetings.

In February 2021, speaking out ahead of publication of the Aged Care Royal Commission report’s release to the public, a former aged care nurse told the ABC that she was stressed and disgusted with the system. “I went home often in tears because I thought, it can’t stay like this, it has to get better.”

Evidently that nurse was not alone. Thousands of aged care workers have left the aged care sector in recent years with thousands more planning to do so.

The nurse concerned said she wanted to see a complete overhaul of the aged care system, but feared it may be in the “too-hard basket” for the federal government, despite the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

The progress report: Implementation of the Recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was published in July 2023. In view of the report’s findings, it appears that the nurse’s anxiety about the pace of reform were well founded.

The Inspector-General of Aged Care states in the foreword of the report that “improving the aged care system is everyone’s business. We have made great progress to ensure that ageing and the issues that older people face are front and centre, but there is a lot more to be done.”

Travelling in Sri Lanka some years ago, I found myself in a crowded village where people were celebrating May Day. Older people were the centre of attention being showered with gifts and celebrated with food, song and dance.

A Buddhist friend explained that the elderly deserve care, support and respect. He told me that elders have much knowledge and experience to share, and it would be shameful to place them into the care of strangers.

The protection of children, care of the aged and vulnerable people more generally are among the hallmarks of a civilized society. With thousands of Australians turning age 65 every day, neglecting our Elders is not only uncivilized, it is extremely wasteful of their knowledge and experience.

Repeating at every opportunity, a mantra paying respect exclusively to past, present and emerging Indigenous Elders, is an incomplete and exclusive gesture. Thousands have suffered and died building and defending Australia. Welcome rituals may exhibit goodwill and sufficient virtue to win the temporary approbation of the crowd but why not, in the words of Dame Mary Gilmore, include respect for ALL of “the knotted hands that set us high”, regardless of race.