The idea of welcome as more than a greeting, but as an underpinning of commerce and socioeconomic development, existed centuries before colonial rulers long over-stayed theirs.
Richard Trudgen in his seminal work on the Yolŋu outlines the trade practices of the First Nations peoples from what is now known as Arnhem Land (Northern Australia). The Macassan people from Sulawesi (Indonesia) would trade cloth, tobacco, rice and knives for Yolŋu-harvested pearls and sea cucumbers. The Yolŋu also conducted diplomatic missions to the Macassan homelands, and the ongoing international commerce informed the national economy. Various items, including steel products, were traded thousands of kilometres across the country.
Mutual trust and respect marked the relationship between the Yolŋu and Macassans. The Macassans acknowledged Yolŋu sovereignty, and at each trade visit, they would wait on the beach to be welcomed onto Yolŋu land and for negotiations to take place.
This protocol still exists, in some form, with Welcome to Country regularly conducted at various events, meetings and functions. Traditionally, however, Welcome to Country was more than a ceremony to open public events. Welcome was a framework and agreement for how diverse cultures were to interact together. Welcome was embedded in cultural engagement and socioeconomic success.
Today, in various media bubbles and thinly-veiled political dog-whistling, concepts of welcome are increasingly reduced to begrudging and conditional entry at the whim of the dominant culture and their government. The rhetoric of “love it or leave”, supported by the relentless pursuit of anyone daring to shine a light on human rights abuses, is now so commonplace as to be expected. And while the sovereignty of our own First Nations people remains unaddressed, the idea of ‘Welcome to Country’ beyond mandated tokenism or engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in how we welcome newcomers to our shores is improbable at best.
Welcome should be a way of life. And our approach should be as though we are artisans developing our craft.
Welcome is far more than how we greet people at the front door. Welcome is about all members of our community having a sense of belonging. Welcoming is about how we value, engage and interact with the people around us. Welcome poses the question ‘who do we want to be?’ and also provides the answer to how we might get there. It is both an underpinning value and an iterative process.
Welcoming Cities was birthed out of a desire to support Local Governments to facilitate communities in which everyone can have a sense of value and belonging and access opportunities to participate in social, economic and civic life. Welcoming works. When people feel welcome, they get involved in community life. So if this is our goal, then ‘how do we get there?’ How do we benchmark and advance this work? How do we know if we’re successful? How do we highlight and share leading practice and celebrate some of the significant policies, practices and projects that are already happening in local communities?
Welcoming Cities poses and seeks to answer the question, what if? What if we dared to consider how we might advance both the hand and art of welcome? What if we created a network of cities, shires, towns, and municipalities who were committed to creating welcoming communities and sharing knowledge, developing partnerships, and celebrating success? What if we then sought to benchmark that work, identify gaps and opportunities, and measure our progress? What if we did more than communicate, but also committed to, planned for, built and sustained welcome? What if we worked collaboratively towards a vision in which we were a welcoming and inclusive nation?
Still in its infancy, Welcoming Cities currently has eight member councils, and a further 54 local councils have expressed interest. What we are doing and how we are seeking to support local communities has struck a chord. In a nation and world that is crying out for principled leadership Mayors, Councillors and CEOs are stepping into the gap and leading local change. They lead amidst media click-bait frenzy that magnifies the few voices of fear and loathing over and above the multitude of positive contributions and good news stories. They lead in the face of top-down government approaches that are more about holding onto power rather than distributing it. These leaders are committed to welcome and developing the art of it. And they pursue welcome, often at great personal and political cost, because they are passionate about the communities they lead and the diversity of people they represent.
From the Yolŋu and Macassans through to contemporary multiculturalism, the history of welcome in this country is rich and diverse. It is, however, under threat. But hope can be found in the leadership of local councils across this nation, and we would do well to support and champion them.