When you are a child you are told to say Hello, Please and Thank You. Yes, it can be wearisome and conventional for us when we are four, but later on this oil in the wheels of human interaction proves to be fundamentally necessary. How would we fare if we breezed in without a sunny ‘G’day’ and all those soft ‘No Worries’ that welcomed me on my first days in Melbourne? I was so used to French brusqueness and patronising impoliteness, that I felt like saying ‘Really? No worries?’ That was my welcome to country.
I am now an Australian citizen but people keep asking me how could you possibly leave Paris? All that culture, they breathe… If only they knew how easy it was. Stone and mortar are not the only culture. The trees, the hills, the deserts of Australia are its cathedrals, its halls of fame. Awe for the spiritual nature of a place, whose presence precedes us all, is very different from patriotism that can degenerate into perverse ownership of the land. One shudders at people swathed in US flags hugging each other to celebrate someone’s death.
The Aboriginal’s know the inner language of this country. Respecting, learning, including their rites as much as possible in urban, western ceremonies can only knit this nation together in a way that can’t be explained but that every Australian (even very new ones) understands in his or her gut – even if they don’t agree with it like Ted Baillieu.
When Jeff Kennett congratulated Ted Baillieu‘s courageous decision on resisting Political Correctness, I felt sad and ashamed.
Of course, a Welcome to Country can be stilted, especially if the person making the speech does not believe in what he or she is saying. Like the child rebelling against the shackles of courtesy at an age where he wants to grab and plunder in the same way he grabbed his mother’s nipple such a short time before, we need to accept the Welcome to Country as a thank you, an acknowledgement of the spiritual identity of this country. Nearly every time I hear an Aboriginal Elder say the Welcome to Country, I feel the sting of tears in my eyes, but I also have been moved every time a non-Aboriginal speaker means what he or she says.
Maybe everyone does not mean it with the same intensity, but the courtesy to the motherland that we grabbed and stole from its original inhabitants is necessary even if short term, short-sighted corporate-minded politicians find it wearisome and conventional. Maybe they think it cramps their style. One thinks of Stephen Jay Gould’s ideas on ontogeny and phylogeny. By extension the rate at which a culture and a generation grow up is not always in sync. This land is ageless. We are a thin layer on the outer crust of its story. The wealth of Aboriginal spiritual knowledge and appropriate behaviour is what has kept this place unlike any other country on the planet, a country that people swarm to because they are beckoned by something inexplicable.
The land of Australia is so old. For a European, just sifting the silky earth through your fingers, touching a Paperbark, looking up to the gigantic sky, walking through the tormented bush or gazing into the arrogant eyes of a kangaroo, is enough to sense the wise and ancient presence of this continent.
We have to grow up too.