In these times when we are all concerned about national reconciliation it’s sad to see there’s been a bit of a spat in the Welcome to Country industry. A lady invited to deliver the welcome for the opening of Parliament in Canberra has been told she is not of the right persuasion.
The lady, with the quintessentially Aboriginal name of Matilda House, was to have welcomed MPs to Parliament on behalf of the Ngunnawal people, on whose land, supposedly, our national capital stands. But Matilda has identified herself with a different tribal group, the Ngambri, with whom the Ngunnawal folk are in dispute about Canberra’s pre-colonial proprietorship. A spokeswoman for the latter, one “Auntie” (what’s Auntie in Ngunnawal?) Agnes Shea, says she is “distressed” by the thought that what she dismisses as “a Ngambri person” should “speak for her people”.
So much for national unity. But whether her gig goes ahead or not, Matilda can console herself that she’s done quite nicely out of the Welcome industry already. Last November she collected $10,500 for graciously welcoming legislators into her country at the opening of the 44th Parliament. Nice work if you can get it.
Perhaps more interesting is the payment category into which Matilda’s welcome fell. It is listed in the parliamentary accounts as “entertainment services”.
What a prospect this opens up! If Welcomes to Country are entertainment, here’s a wonderful opportunity to get away from the stale, unvarying ritual of aunties and elders reminding the whitefella that he’s a guest on their land and brighten up the ceremonies with some real show business. Hitherto being welcomed to their own country has been a supererogatory penance bien-pensants engage in to liberate their wishy-washy consciences from self-generated guilt — one of those dreary things, along with walks for reconciliation, that do nothing to benefit any Aboriginal other than the well-remunerated welcomers, who must be the only people to enjoy them. But turn them into entertainment and everyone can have a happy time.
Matilda and Auntie Agnes have a perfect opportunity to start livening things up. Why don’t they both share the Welcome to the next parliamentary opening and turn it into a floor show, taking as a cue their difference over who should be conducting the event, and slug their way to a resolution of the dispute by means of traditional ritual combat?
If spears and nulla nullas are disallowed on health-and-safety grounds, there’s always handbag-slapping and hair-pulling — as long as the two ladies remember that this is entertainment and don’t get carried away and pursue their claims to the point of spilling blood. Parliament is not the Colosseum. That other traditional method of female contest, mud-wrestling, might also be going too far, even if there must be plenty of male MPs who like watching feminine pastimes of this sort on the Internet. One doesn’t want to offend the dignity of the legislature. Just an old-fashioned scratch-and-bite, the kind that used to take place outside the ladies’ lounges of working-class pubs after too many shandies, is all that’s needed.
For more wholesome entertainment, how about whichever of the aunties emerges victorious from the contest hosting a karaoke Welcome, with Pat Dodson in his hat as celebrity guest and MPs singing along? There may not be an extensive repertoire of Aboriginal songs to sing along to but everyone loves I’ve Been Everywhere, Man and Tie Me Kangaroo Down. Indeed, one could think of inviting Rolf and his third leg as additional performers, but perhaps not just now when he has so much on his mind.
If Matilda and Agnes are not themselves entertainers — professional entertainers, that is — thought should be given to widening the entertainment potential of Welcomes to Country by signing up some genuine troupers. It is a pity that Joan Sutherland is no longer available to sing a soprano Welcome, or Peter Allen to give us his popular patriotic I Still Call Australia Home (should Matilda adapt his words to “You Still Can’t Call Australia Your Home”?) A Welcome with pretty Marieke Hardy and her hilarious wit would be a treat — though not in front of children. Or, for those who prefer the more mature entertainer, there is always Bert Newton.
A chorus number would be fun, with the full spangles-and-ostrich-feathers line-up of Matilda and the Welcomettes, the latter recruited from the Children’s Coalition Against Climate Change, whose terpsichorean talents were on display in their recent YouTube publicity clip. A further source of inspiration is the world of gender politics, where, to avoid sexual “stereotypes”, role reversal is much in vogue (small boys playing with dolls, lesbians as fathers). Instead of always being welcomed, why shouldn’t MPs welcome the welcomers and lecture them on the number of massacres of Anglo settlers by Matilda’s forebears?
That mightn’t get much of a laugh, but what Welcome to Country does? We need the popular touch of the impresario to lift these events of salutary national self-awareness out of their rut. Until now the only entertaining thing known to happen at one of them was at the Melbourne Function Centre last year, when the Welcome smoking ceremony set off the fire alarms. But treat them as the entertainment that the House of Representatives accounts department obviously thinks they are and every Welcome could be an event to look forward to, rather than to endure while feeling half-guilty and half-virtuous.
And if show-biz Welcomes to Country become hot hits, the commercially intelligent next step would be to bring a wider audience via TV. This would be a natural for the Seven Network. Stand by for My Welcome Rules with Matilda and Agnes as first contenders.
Christopher Akehurst blogs at Argus