The federal government spent more than $45,000 on welcome ceremonies last fiscal year, but the total cost could be much higher, with more than half of major departments and agencies unwilling or unable to say what they spend on the practice.
READ MORE: Tribal Aboriginal woman reveals why she hates Australia’s Welcome to Country
Figures obtained by Sky News from the Estimates sessions in the Federal Parliament show welcome-to-the-country ceremonies typically cost between $5,000 and $7,500, but can reach up to $10,500 for the opening of parliament.
Half of federal government departments ignored Parliament’s request to provide the amount spent on Welcome to Country, with two saying they “couldn’t” give figures.
Sky News says a department official told them the costs of Welcome to Country could not be disclosed due to “commercial and cultural sensitivities”.
Of the responding agencies, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations spent the largest amount on Welcomes to Country, over $14,000 for 20 ceremonies.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney takes part in the smoking ceremony to open Parliament in July last year
Home Affairs spent nearly $12,000, the ABC disbursed over $7,000, while the Treasury allocated $2,950.
Four other departments reported spending between $1,600 and $2,800 each.
LNP Queensland Senator James McGrath has called for more transparency and consistency around the amounts spent.
He noted that the ACT government advises on its website that “as a general indicator, $350 for a Welcome to Country is appropriate”, but the rate of opening Parliament is several times higher than that.
“I think ratepayers would be a bit suspicious that there were official guidelines, but in this big granite building in the middle of the ACT, the costs are much higher there.”
An Albanian government spokeswoman told Sky News that welcome ceremonies to the country have been widely accepted as part of official government events by coalition and Labor leaders.
The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council booking sheet for a Gadigal Welcome to Country for the Sydney area shows a typical cost of $560.
Wurundjeri eldest Aunty Joy performs Welcome to Country ahead of a Women’s World Cup match between Colombia and Jamaica in August
He advises the performance fee of a didgeridoo and an additional $300 and there is an additional fee of $112 if the ceremony takes place outside normal business hours.
Darwin-based Laraia alumnus Dr Richard Fijo, who has performed Welcomes to Country at major sporting events, argued that the ritual had a cultural significance that is difficult to measure in monetary terms.
‘You can’t undervalue a Wwelcome to the country, what it means not only for the Aborigines but also for the rest of Australia,” he said.“As for the cost of Welcome to Country, well, it depends on the presenter, what they have to say, how long and who they say it to.”
Senator McGrath claimed his constituents had had enough of Welcomes to Country.
“What irritates people is the political message that is shoved, down people’s throats,” he said.
LNP Senator and leading Indigenous campaigner against the Voice of Parliament, Jacinta Price, recently launched consistent welcomes around the country, saying the practice sends an unwelcoming message to the majority of Australians.
“There is no problem acknowledging our history, but the rollout of these performances before every sporting event or public gathering is definitely divisive,” Ms Price told The Australian.
LNP Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price says consistent use of Welcomes to Country is divisive
“Australians don’t need to be welcomed into their own country.”
The senator, who has indigenous Walpiri and European heritage, is one of the main opposition leaders to the Indigenous Voices in Parliament project.
“It’s not welcoming, it’s saying to non-Indigenous Australians ‘this isn’t your country’ and it’s wrong.” We are all Australians and we share this great country.
The comments echo former Prime Minister Tony Abbott who told a forum opposing the Indigenous voice in Parliament last week that he was ‘a little fed up with Welcomes to Country’ because Australia ‘belongs to us everyone, not just some of us.”
Dr Fejo said his Welcome to the Country was not explicitly political but defended the right to make such statements.
“Who is a politician to prevent a traditional owner from welcoming people to his country or telling them what they can or cannot say in this Welcome to Country?” says Dr. Fejo.
“They have the right to speak on behalf of their country and that should not be diminished and it should not be called tokenism, and it should absolutely belong to the traditional owners of each of their lands and locations.”
Some have questioned the cultural validity of the modern version of Welcome to Country, which only dates back to 1976 when a dance troupe formed by an Aboriginal actor improvised its form in a ceremony for Maori and Cook Islanders.
Indigenous activist Kiescha Haines-Jamieson told her more than a million social media followers in July The sacred Welcome To Country ritual is “losing its cultural meaning” because it is so “generalized now”.
“It was never intended for the opening of football matches or corporate and social events,” she said.
“It was actually a practice used to secure clearance and safe passage to and across tribal borders and now it is so widespread that it has made people apathetic.”
Narungga elder Kerry White told Daily Mail Australia in December that the constant rituals of welcoming to the country and recognizing the country are not being used properly and have become “virtuous signaling” for non-Indigenous people.
‘It was only used when aboriginal elders welcomed other aboriginals onto their land for negotiation talks,’ Ms White said.
“They didn’t use it every day, it was a ceremonial process.
“So they took our ceremonial process and debased it by throwing it into every aspect of what Australians do every day.
“And I think that’s culturally wrong.”
Ms White, who stood as a one-nation candidate in South Australia’s last election, said the welcome-to-the-country ceremony had in fact become an “attack on Indigenous culture”.
In the meantime
WHAT IS WELCOME TO COUNTRY?
A Welcome to Country can only be delivered by Traditional owners or custodians of the lands on which the event takes place.
It is usually performed by a local Aboriginal elder to acknowledge and give consent to events taking place on their traditional lands.
It is also a sign of respect and protocol, but oOrganizing a Welcome to Country can take weeks, involving several different indigenous groups.
If a Traditional Owner is not available to make a Country Welcome message, a Country Acknowledgment may be issued instead.
A country acknowledgment is a way to show awareness and respect for the traditional custodians of the land where a meeting or event is taking place.
Its purpose is to recognize the ongoing connection of Indigenous peoples to the country and can be offered by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
There are three types of country recognition:
Generic — this should be used if you do not know the names of the people on whose land you are gathered, or if there are disputes over the land (several indigenous peoples identify as traditional custodians for this area). The words are:
“I begin today by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we stand on today, and honoring their elders past and present. I extend that respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here present.
Specific — this should be used when there are no disputes and you know the names of the people on whose lands you are gathered. The words are:
“I begin today by acknowledging the people, the traditional custodians of the land we stand on today, and paying homage to their elders past and present. I extend that respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here present.
General (for use across Australia or in a webinar, website or printed materials) – Words are:
“In the spirit of reconciliation, (the organization) recognizes traditional guardians of country across Australia and their connection to land, sea and community. We honor their elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.