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 now 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 for 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 themselves have a perfect opportunity to start the process of 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 & Safety grounds, there's always handbags and high heels or slapping and hair-pulling - as long as the two ladies remember that this is entertainment and don't get carried away into pursuing 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 that is, thought should be given to widening the entertainment potential of Welcomes to Country by signing up some genuine troupers as welcomers. It doesn't matter if they're not Aboriginal - the degree of Aboriginality in the current corps of welcomers seems pretty exiguous at times. 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 could take singing lessons and adapt his words to: "You 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, Bert Newton.

Entertainer-welcomers seeking artistic inspiration could do worse than follow the prescriptions set out by Judy Garland in the 1952 MGM song-and-dance number "That's Entertainment". Among the things that entertain people there's

A clown with his pants falling down

Who better than Mr Thompson to fill that role? Though sadly no longer in Parliament, there's nothing to stop him being commissioned as a welcomer. Or from the same song:

Some great Shakespearian scene
Where a ghost and a prince meet and everyone ends in mincemeat

Change Shakespearian to colonial and a ghost and a prince to invader and invaded and you'd have a dramatic charade straight out of Henry Reynolds.

A chorus number would be fun, with

The lights on the lady in tights

and a 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 a rut. Till now the only entertaining thing ever 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 the House of Representatives accounts department obviously thinks they are and every Welcome could be an event to look forward to, rather than to sit through and feel half-guilty half virtuous about.

And if show-biz Welcomes to Country become hot hits, the commercially intelligent next step is to bring them to 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.

31 January 2014


The main reason for the decline of Christianity in the West, it seems to me, is decline in belief in the soul. If you believe you have an immortal soul, and that, as Christianity teaches, that soul is destined after your physical death to go to Heaven or Hell, you will want to do everything in your power to live your earthly life so that you go to Heaven. If you believe, as most people seem to, that this earthly life is all there is, and are untroubled by questions about how we got here and the origin of existence, you might as well enjoy whatever this life affords and not give Christianity a second thought. Particularly if you're as well off as most people in the West are.

I wonder to what extent belief in the soul has also declined within the Church itself and is substituted by a concern for "social justice".

28 January 2014


"The deepest, the only theme of human history, compared to which all others are of subordinate importance," wrote Goethe in 1819, "is the conflict of scepticism with faith. All epochs that are ruled by faith, in whatever form, are glorious, elevating and fruitful in themselves and for posterity. All epochs, on the other hand, in which scepticism in whatever form maintains a precarious triumph, even should they boast for a moment of a borrowed splendour, lose their meaning for posterity, because no one can take pleasure in wrestling with the study of what  is essentially sterile."

What will posterity think of our epoch?

8 January 2014


It's always nice to start the year with a laugh, and what could be more hilarious than the spectacle of a collection of climate-change enthusiasts sailing off to Antarctica and finding themselves trapped in the very ice that they had gone there intending to "prove" was melting away. It's a farce that needs a Jerome K. Jerome to do it justice. The leader of the expedition, a clownish figure described as a "professor of climate change", had, like the skipper of the Hesperus and his little daughter, taken his family with him to bear him company, so confident were he and his scientific colleagues that, with the ice all gone or going, the occasion would be more like a cruise in the South Seas. Now nasty Dame Nature, declining to obey the dictates of computer modelling, has not only spoilt their holiday but delivered a slap in the face to one of the sacred dogmas of global-warming believers.

6 January 2013