A parliamentary legacy of unlamented former independent MP Rob Oakeshott is his insistence that “at the beginning of each sitting day, prior to prayers, the Speaker will make an acknowledgement of country.” Thanks to Oakeshott, before daily prayers federal MPs pay obeisance to the local Aboriginal tribe – the Ngunnawal – as the traditional “custodians” of the land on which Parliament House is located.
Indeed, since 2008 doing elaborate homage to Indigenous Australians has been incorporated into the ceremonial opening of the Parliament itself. So it was that the first Parliament of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership was initiated by a mystical Welcome to Country ritual in the Parliament House forecourt. Earnest Aboriginal men and women donned possum-fur cloaks and danced around a ceremonial fire, chanted invocations, clapped sticks and played digeridoos, cleansing Parliament of its evil spirits (necessary, of course, because Kevin Rudd was re-elected) through a magical “smoking ceremony” featuring smouldering gum leaves and their evanescent eucalyptus odour. Indigenous leaders bestowed their blessing upon our elected representatives, thanked gravely by the prime minister and leader of the Opposition for their great kindness in letting “their” lands be used for the greater good.
This staged parliamentary tableau is just part of a much wider fashion of rendering mandatory public homage to Australia’s first peoples. The practice is now so entrenched that politicians and officials, even of state Coalition governments, seemingly cannot make a public utterance without acknowledging the “traditional owners of the land on which we stand, and their elders past and present”. Many government departments and agencies, including even the CSIRO, have spent considerable time and money developing elaborate Welcome to Country guidelines: in a New South Wales case this goes right down to recommending appropriate fees for elders, singers, dancers and digeridoo players (although some bright spark forgot to say whether or not these include GST!).
While the parliamentary Welcome to Country had gravitas, elsewhere these often are tokenistic parodies. I recall attending a conference where an obese mud-streaked and pale-skinned Aboriginal man sat down on stage, his expansive and overhanging stomach brushing the floor. He played a digeridoo badly for a minute, presumably to Australianise an international event and make predominantly middle-class Australian Anglo-Celtic businessmen and professionals feel smug about themselves. Hopefully his fee was worth his while: his performance was cringeworthy, and by having him appear the organisers patronised and humiliated him.
Nevertheless, a thriving mini-industry has grown up around marketing, booking and staging Welcomes to Country. Tourism Australia, the government agency that gave us Lara Bingle, actively promotes them on its website, effectively declaring it obligatory to include them at conferences and major events staged here. There are circuits of Aboriginal performers going from one event or conference to another, some very good and others, like my pudgy digeridoo player, artistically awful. Perhaps they think whitefella audiences are on such a guilt trip that nobody will care about the quality of their performances.
If you happen to believe these tableaux recapture the ancient rituals of an ancient people, think again. Welcome to Country ceremonies actually go way, way back to 1976, when Aboriginal performers Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley were asked to create a welcome ceremony for visiting Pacific Islanders at a tourism event in Perth, reflecting their cultural traditions rather than Aboriginal Australia’s. Given that 1976 is so pre-YouTube, however, it might as well be prehistory to the younger Australians conditioned to revere these invented practices.
In fairness, brazenly improvising an instant tradition is not unique. In 1911, David Lloyd George commissioned an elaborately faux-ancient investiture ceremony for the then Prince of Wales. Lloyd George’s extravaganza had no historical basis whatever, but it supposedly made Julia Gillard’s Welsh forefathers feel better about their perpetually economically-depressed principality and their own squalid existences – and therefore more likely to vote for “LG’s” Liberals. Indeed, in 1969 Lord Snowdon staged an investiture for Prince Charles at Carnarvon Castle, just coincidentally offering a spiffing spectacle ideal for the BBC’s new colour TV service (and for the Australian Women’s Weekly which covered it lavishly).
If Dingo and Walley have given some entrepreneurial Aborigines a chance to make a good living from exploiting whitefella guilt, at least there’s been an economic benefit of sorts. But it is patronising, even offensive, for a coterie of self-righteous academics, clergy and journalists, and some Aboriginal lobbyists, to champion these performances merely to indulge and propagate their Rousseau and Manning Clark-fed notions of the noble savage and black armband history.
Unless accompanied by real engagement and commitment, Welcome to Country and mandatory acknowledgments are hollow mummery, doing nothing to redress past wrongs or alleviate present indignities. Lip service through them doesn’t improve the quality of life or long-term economic prospects for Indigenous Australians. Starting a speech by paying some Aborigines token respect doesn’t improve the quality of Australian public discourse and parliamentary deliberations on social inequality and injustice. That can only come from a warm heart, and fortunately most of our elected representatives already have one of those.
Real action and decisive leadership on Indigenous affairs, like the Howard government’s intervention in the Northern Territory, or Noel Pearson’s outstanding work in Cape York, are what truly matters, not waving about a few smoky gum leaves to salve Whitlamite whitefella consciences. Tony Abbott’s determination to use the weight and prestige of his office to attack Indigenous disadvantage, demonstrated by his own long practical involvement in Aboriginal communities, is a genuine and noble commitment that all Australians can support.
In 2010 Abbott incurred the wrath of the ABC-Fairfax love media when he said that mandatory acknowledgment of country can be inappropriate, tokenistic and meaningless. Unlike them, however, Abbott realises that a mature nation doesn’t need artificial and insincere rituals to prove it cares about righting wrongs and fighting social disadvantage and discrimination. Unlike them, he practises what he preaches and sets an example to all. If anyone could make that criticism, it is Abbott.
The two Aboriginal members of the 44th federal Parliament, Ken Wyatt in the House of Representatives and Nova Peris in the Senate, can achieve more for fellow Indigenous Australians than a million hollow smoking ceremonies. They don’t need cant and humbug to be respected, nor do their people.
Terry Barnes was a senior adviser to Tony Abbott in the Howard government