Failing to ‘Acknowledge Country’: The Scarcity of Respect


I think we students generally don’t provide enough praise to our educators who are charged with the onerous duty of pulling the cord to the parachute of our minds. Throughout my seven-year tertiary academic journey I’ve had the pleasure of learning from a multitude of remarkable lecturers and tutors at Monash and RMIT University. But as I start my new criminal para-legal position at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, I wanted to dedicate this post to the only (emphasis added) academic staff member who commenced our classes by respecting the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we were taught.

Mr John Fox was a senior tutor in my Social Science (Legal and Dispute Studies) degree at RMIT University in 2007. He always started his classes with an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ by stating: ‘I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of this land, of Elders past and present, on which this class takes place’. 

Admittedly, when I first heard the Acknowledgement I naively thought Mr Fox had an Aboriginal background as I was under the impression that it could only be delivered by an Aboriginal person. So, half-way into the semester, I mustered up the nerve to question him about his Aboriginality and why he would uniquely start his classes in this manner.

Mr Fox did not have Aboriginal ancestry and he clarified that I had confused the ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ with the ‘Welcome to Country’ Ceremony – an Acknowledgement could be delivered by a non-Aboriginal person at the start of any meeting, function, or congregation, whereas a Welcome Ceremony could only be performed by an Aboriginal Elder.[1]

As to my question of why he Acknowledged Country, Mr Fox explained that the answer was located in a discussion about the ‘scarcity of respect’ in the opening paragraphs of a book by Richard Sennett:

‘Lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form. No insult is offered to another person, but neither is recognition extended; he or she is not seen – as a full human being whose presence matters.

When a society treats mass of people in this way, singling out only a few for recognition, it creates a scarcity of respect, as though there were not enough of this precious substance to go around. Like many famines, this scarcity is man-made; unlike food, respect costs nothing. Why, then, should it be in short supply?’[2]

By reading this paradigm shifting passage, Mr Fox taught me a life lesson that we must be equally critical and accountable about our inactions/omissions as we are about our actions. Indeed, not Acknowledging Country could be equally hurtful as positively insulting the Traditional Custodians of this land. It is a form of insidious offending, and if we want to put an end to it, we must Acknowledge Country in our classrooms, lecture theatres, oral presentations, business meetings, and dare I say, in our courtrooms.

Especially when such a sublime gesture of respect has the cost of nothing more than a single sentence!

Has your teacher Acknowledged Country? Let us know by commenting below.   

Ali Besiroglu

[1] To learn more about the difference between an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ and ‘Welcome to Country’ click here.
[2] Richard Sennett ‘Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality’ (2003) pg 3.