A senior police constable rewrote then delivered a mock acknowledgement of country at an elite counter-terrorism unit’s Christmas party in Sydney last year.
Soon afterwards, members of the Tactical Operations Unit were asked to leave the bar for unruly behaviour, eyewitnesses told the ABC, and a copy of the speech was left behind on a clipboard.
Aboriginal leaders have called the defacing of the acknowledgement heartbreaking and disrespectful.
NSW Police confirmed the incident took place at the Harpoon Harry pub in Surry Hills, and said a complaints investigation into the unit was underway.
Speech reworded to acknowledge the Tactical Operations Unit
The speech was written over the top of an official acknowledgement to country, rewording it to refer to the “TOU (Tactical Operations Unit) nation” with words like “Indigenous” and “custodians” scribbled out and replaced with “tactical” and “protectors”.
“I would like to acknowledge the people of the TOU NATION who are the traditional protectors of this land.
“I would also like to pay my respects to members past and present of THE TOU NATION and extend that respect to other tactical people present.
“I would like to acknowledge that this function is being held on the traditional land that the TOU NATION protect every day.”
An acknowledgement of country is supposed to be an opportunity for anyone to show respect to traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land.
Yvonne Weldon, Chairperson of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council, which represents Aboriginal people in Sydney, said the speech painted a damning picture of one of NSW Police’s most powerful units.
“It’s not even a joke acknowledgement, it’s actually an intentional disrespect to the First Nations people,” she said.
“If you can disrespect the ancestors, then what respect do you have for the current people that exist as well?”
Law professor Larissa Behrendt, from the University of Technology Sydney, said it was shocking to see after so many public pronouncements about cultural training in the police force.
“I find it disappointing and actually heartbreaking,” she said.
“The idea of mocking something that is really central to Aboriginal protocols reflects an attitude more generally towards Aboriginal people and their culture, which is demeaning.”
“We can see strong evidence that there’s still very little respect for Aboriginal culture, and therefore Aboriginal people.”
The unit will undergo training
In a statement to the ABC, New South Wales Police said an internal review determined the document was disrespectful and the matter was being investigated as a breach of the NSW Police Code of Conduct.
Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Commander, Assistant Commissioner Mark Walton, said the speech was against the values of NSW Police.
“While I’m told this speech was intended for a private audience at a small function, I cannot accept that anyone would see humour in it,” he said.
“All police officers are expected to uphold the Statement of Values and the Code of Conduct and Ethics whether they are on or off duty, and the contents of the document are contrary to these policies.”
Ms Weldon said the police response was not good enough.
“‘Internal’ is probably the keyword that needs to be expanded on,” she said.
“If you don’t have outside views, you don’t change inside behaviours.”
New South Wales Police said the Tactical Operations Unit would undergo re-assessment and training, including working with Aboriginal communities, regardless of the outcome of the complaint investigation.
A spokesperson for Harpoon Harry declined to comment.