This week the Returned Services League of WA (RSLWA) has been slammed in the media for their Commemoration Policy as it was found that it did not support the inclusion of the Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country, or the flying of the Aboriginal flag in their official ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day services. They have since overturned the ‘ban’ in wake of such criticism, but their decision to prohibit Indigenous cultural protocols and the Aboriginal flag should still be examined.
Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country have been important inclusions of recognition and respect at significant events and meetings for a long time, so it’s both concerning and baffling as to why the RSL would have taken this position.
Their policy stated that:
“RSLWA respects the inclusion of Welcome to Country and/or Acknowledgement of Country in contemporary Australia but does not support its use at specific commemorative sites that honour the fallen. These sites and locations have deep meaning to all Australians who mourn the loss of life during war – losses that did not discriminate on the grounds of race, ethnicity or religion.
While it is important to recognize cultural and ethnic contributions to the defence of Australia, it is also important to maintain ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day as occasions to express unity, a time when all Australians – irrespective of race, culture or religion – come together to remember and reflect.”
What is mystifying is the implication from the RSLWA that the Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country is discriminatory, or against the principle of unity. Isn’t the point of a Welcome to Country, in its most basic, simplistic terms — a welcome extended to all onto Aboriginal land? Surely, this welcome extends to all who would be attending the commemoration services, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, using RSLWA’s own terms. It hardly sounds like discrimination of those attending, whatever their background.
Not including an Acknowledgement of Country in official services is also puzzling, since these ‘specific commemorative sites that honour the fallen’ exist on Aboriginal land. It seems ironic to choose not to acknowledge this fact simply because these sites exist to specifically honour those who have served.
Another point of their policy included:
RSLWA policy for ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day is to have all content, including The Ode, read and/or sung in English, save the New Zealand National Anthem.
Again, it is difficult to understand why this is even a policy point at all. Of course, we speak the English language in Australia. Perhaps RSLWA is worried that people may feel excluded when First Nations languages are spoken at these events. The thing is, ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day do not exist in a vacuum where the history of First Nations people and their contribution to the armed services is ignored for the sake of ceremony. We are past being so pedantic in these circumstances.
The RSLWA responded to criticism by clarifying their position:
RSLWA also respects the inclusion of the Welcome to Country and/or Acknowledgement of Country and the flying of the Australian Aboriginal Flag at other commemorative events such as Indigenous Veteran Service Day, National Sorry Day, National Reconciliation week and NAIDOC week. Furthermore, RSLWA respects the right of any government and community entities to do likewise.
RSLWA’s approach to the form and conduct of commemoration is to commemorate in a way that respects all who served, and still serve, no matter their background.
Excluding the Welcome to Country, Acknowledgement of Country, and not flying the Aboriginal Flag at official ANZAC and Remembrance Day events seems to demonstrate the erasure of the important role of First Nations people on these historic days.
Thankfully they have decided to overturn their policy, but the question still remains. Why would RSLWA think these policies would be acceptable in the first place? In an effort to uphold principles of unity and inclusion for all, they have managed to exclude such an important voice, an important history, an important people. Indigenous Australians have served, and continue to serve, in the armed forces, so why did RSLWA forget that in the name of their principles?