The Western Australian branch of the RSL’s decision to ban Welcome to Country ceremonies and the flying of the Aboriginal flag at all of its Anzac and Remembrance Day services has been described by critics as “offensive” and “divisive”.
The RSLWA commemoration cultural policy states while it respects the inclusion of Welcome to Country in contemporary Australia it “… 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,” the policy states.
“While having utmost respect for the traditional owners of land upon which such sites and memorials are located, RSLWA does not view it appropriate that a Welcome to Country is used at sites that were specifically established to pay homage to those who died and who came from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.
“RSLWA will not include Welcome to Country and/or Acknowledgement of Country in RSLWA-conducted commemorations on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day but respects the right of others to do so.”
In a statement issued on Friday afternoon, RSLWA clarified that while it supported the right to fly the Indigenous flag and make a Welcome to Country dedication at official ceremonies, “What RSL is not supportive of is the use of Welcome to Country as part of the actual service itself in terms of the Dawn Service of ANZAC Day and the 11am Service at Remembrance Day”.
“For example, RSLWA supports and encourages the conduct of a combined Indigenous/Maori ceremony immediately after the Dawn service itself,” the statement said.
According to the ABC, the policy change was sparked after Aboriginal elder Prof Len Collard read The Ode in Noongar language at the Anzac dawn service in Fremantle in 2019.
Greens Senator for Western Australia Rachel Siewert called on RSLWA to reverse the policy, which she said was “offensive and hurtful”.
“This is First Nations land and many First Nations peoples served this nation,” she said. “Many First Nations peoples have served this country in the armed services and this move by the RSL is deeply offensive to their memories and not in the Anzac spirit. WA treasurer and Indigenous affairs minister Ben Wyatt, a Yamatji man, wrote on Twitter that the decision was “a regrettable and divisive” one.
“I suggest they reconsider,” he wrote. “Immediately. It is worth noting that our New Zealand partners embrace the language of their Indigenous peoples at Anzac Day ceremonies. We should do the same.”
The RSL policy goes on to state that Anzac Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies would have all content, including The Ode, read or sung in English, except for the New Zealand national anthem.
“RSLWA recognises that, while Indigenous Australians in the First World War served on equal terms, they were subjected to discrimination after the war in areas such as education, employment and civil liberties,” the statement says. “RSLWA remains appalled at such treatment.”