It's the only night legendary Australian band the Go-Betweens are playing in Sydney and the audience is keyed up. A woman gives a very moving Acknowledgment of Country - you know, the ones which are more than just the nod to elders past, present and emerging. The ones which talk about rivers and sky, kin and skin. It's Wiradjuri woman Yvonne Weldon, chair of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, whose ability to hold an audience is epic.
Midway, a bloke in the audience starts heckling. Get a move on, he says, and worse.
"I paused. And then I said, 'This is exactly for you, we are the oldest living cultures of the world'," Weldon remembers.
There was a moment of silence before people started telling him to shush - but in stronger language. Weldon continued. Her aim, she says, was to address a big-mouthed, small-minded person.
Now the Prime Minister is doing his own interrupting, colonising these acknowledgments with his own version. Last Saturday, at a Liberal function at Parliament House, he acknowledged the Ngunnawal people. And then he said: "Can I also acknowledge, as is my habit, anyone who is serving in our defence forces and certainly those who are veterans, and simply say on behalf of a very grateful nation, thank you for your service."
It's his own thing. Six words about the traditional owners and entire sentences about everyone else. He didn't just do it at the Liberal Council. He also did it at the Migration and Settlement Awards and at the Prime Minister's Literary Awards. Morrison has decided to add non-Indigenous people to the acknowledgments without reflecting on what that means and how it diminishes Aboriginal people.
Why does this matter? We know we are on Aboriginal land. We know Australia wasn't blank earth when colonised 200 years ago. Since the arrival of Cook and company, Aboriginal people have been raped and murdered, stolen from their families, had their cultural practices and beliefs erased. They earn less, learn less, die early. There is a lot we can do to redress that, but the very least we could do is to acknowledge that we are on Aboriginal land. It's a couple of minutes out of our respective days and might even encourage a tiny bit of reflection on the part of those of us who are listening. It's not a big ask to be part of a ceremony that has its traditions going back thousands of years (yes, yes, they didn't have exactly this before white people arrived, but Aboriginal people had their own ways of welcoming to country).
In the aeons before, the Welcome to Country was a sign of peace. And it's this which irks D'harawal scholar Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney (I work there too), the most. Bodkin-Andrews, who has researched Welcome to Country controversies, says the Prime Minister has appropriated an act of peace and embedded war. Bodkin-Andrews reminds us that Welcome to Countries (delivered by traditional custodians) are about Aboriginal people sharing their histories and their connections to Country. Acknowledgments (given by Aboriginal people who are not custodians of the land or by non-Aboriginal people) should respect this.
"It's asking for understanding and demonstrating that our arms are open to you. Military personnel can be agents of war and Morrison's comments are warmongering in a symbol of peace. That is ultimately disrespectful."
It's also puzzling. Why acknowledge that particular category of Australian?
"It's reflective of his mentality and the party he stands for."
On Thursday morning, Yvonne Weldon was giving another Acknowledgement of Country, this time for NCOSS, the peak body for social services in NSW. She said it was fascinating to hear how another white politician responded to this practice. NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro thanked Weldon. He said he was often asked why he participates. Is it because of protocol?
"No, it's appropriate and right to acknowledge the First Peoples of this great country and as someone that comes from migrant background ... the importance of heritage and culture is so important to who we are, but also for our future, and that is why it's important to acknowledge that our story began with the First People."
Now this may just be positioning himself as a future federal politician (because the Nationals definitely need more choices) or because he's observed Morrison's behaviour and wants to make sure people realise he has a very different view. But his response is authentic, and connects his lived experience to the acknowledgment.
The Australian newspaper asked the Prime Minister why he was adding veterans to the national acknowledgment. He replied: "We rightly acknowledge our first Australian traditional owners and I have always felt in this spirit we also acknowledge those for whom we owe the greatest debt: to be able to live in the best country in the world and enjoy the freedoms they paid for."
A spokesperson for Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said he welcomed the Prime Minister's addition of veterans and defence personnel. "This does not in any way detract from the cultural significance of acknowledging country," the spokesperson said.
Acknowledgments of Country are just one small way in which we can pay tribute. They are not perfect. Some argue they are tokenistic. But the Prime Minister is incorrect about our greatest debt. Our greatest debt is to the people whose land we stole, the land we use for our benefit.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.