The West Australian branch of the Returned and Services League has backed down on its controversial decision to ban the Aboriginal flag and Welcome to Country ceremonies during their Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services.
The decision to ban West Australian RSLs from flying Aboriginal flags or having Welcome to Country ceremonies at their memorial events for fallen soldiers was revealed in a new Cultural Commemoration Policy on Friday.
The RSL branch has now apologised for any offence caused by the policy, saying they are concerned it had been “open to misinterpretation”.
The decision to update the policy was sparked after the board received complaints after the traditional Ode of Remembrance poem was recited in an indigenous Noongar language at an Anzac service last year, by Professor Len Collard.
The new cultural commemoration policy noted there has “been a trend among sectors of the Australian community to seek to include specific cultural and ethnic elements into major commemorative events”. The RSLWA said the policy did “not serve to divide, but to unite”.
The new policy imposed all content at Anzac and Remembrance Day services be in English, except the New Zealand National Anthem; only flying the Australian, New Zealand and WA flags on these days and; having no Welcome to Country ceremonies on these days.
A Welcome to Country is a ceremony held at the beginning of events in Australia to bring awareness about the traditional history and cultural owners of an area.
The policy drew swift backlash from politicians and commentators online, including from WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt, who called the policy “regrettable and divisive”.
Veterans Issues minister Peter Tinley, a veteran, said Aboriginal people wore the uniform for 87 years before they were even counted as Australians.
“The RSL has got it wrong and I’m appalled that in this day and age that they would be so prescriptive,” he told reporters.
“This really hurts, this really strikes at the heart of reconciliation,” he said.
“I don’t accept the concept that First Nation Australians, who have continuous occupation of this land for 50,000 years, are tagged into a multicultural bucket … they have a very special part of our story.”
After receiving harsh backlash over the policy, the RSLWA announced it would be revising the policy yesterday, saying the branch’s guidelines had been misunderstood.
“Given the level of community reaction to RSLWA’s advisory policy on cultural matters relating to commemoration, this policy has now been withdrawn,” The RSLWA said in a statement.
The branch said it was concerned their position “had unfortunately drawn misunderstandings of its intent”.
“RSLWA values and respects the Australian indigenous community and, in particular, indigenous veterans,” the statement said.
“RSLWA accepts the policy may have been open to misinterpretation.
“Its advisory policy will be reviewed and relaunched in the near future following further dialogue with interested parties.”
The president of the RSLWA Peter Aspinall yesterday apologised for any offence caused.
“I believe it’s a misunderstanding of what we intended in the way we wrote the cultural respect policy,” Mr Aspinall said.