From one traditional owner to another
The Melbourne Commonwealth Games opening ceremony bore close resemblance to Sydney’s epic spectacle six years previously. Both events gave Indigenous Australia a significant profile and used an innocent child to make the link with non-Indigenous Australia. In Melbourne, Nicki Webster was replaced by a young boy holding a duck. Clearly, these spectacles require some kind of link to connect its original inhabitants with majority white Australia. However, in the absence of a treaty, it is simpler to use a child without any adult history as the point of connection with Aboriginal culture. It seems we are still not mature enough to have an adult relationship between the two worlds. Any attempt to mature this relationship on the grand stage would only make more obvious the lack of treaty in our history.
In Melbourne, the absence of real connection with Aboriginal Australia was made additionally obvious in the second boy’s role. The young ambassador from Plan Australia described the queen as the ‘glue’ that keeps the Commonwealth together. Clearly, cultural dialogue, shared colonial experience and common humanity is not enough. Mother England still holds us together.
But there are signs that the royals might be a touch impatient for Australia to loosen its hold on the apron strings. Last Saturday, I was lined up to have a conversation with the youngest son, Prince Edward. I introduced him to the Common Goods exhibition, pointed out the 100th Anniversary of Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign and the way Indian darners had honoured our proud Eureka flag. In the face of a proud republican tradition, the Prince exclaimed ‘Smashing!’
Minutes later, he was at the podium opening the Spirit of the Games exhibition, at the Melbourne Museum. The crowd hushed in respect as the Earl of Wessex entered the room. Before welcoming the Prince, the Museum Director Dr Patrick Greene acknowledged the traditional owners of the land, the people of the Kulin nation. He was followed by the Premier Steve Backs, how also commenced with the same script. Then Arts & Sport Minister Rod Kemp spoke about the joys of combining both ministries. Finally, Museum chair Harold Mitchell acknowledged traditional owners and then mentioned the real chair on which the ‘little old lady’ sat that is now on display (to gasps of horror in the audience). Finally, Prince Edward took to the podium, fresh-faced and without notes. And even he began with the refrain ‘I would like to acknowledge the original…’ he hesitated for a second before correcting himself, ‘…traditional owners of the land’. Steve Bracks looked particularly pleased at this royal acknowledgment.
While Australia’s future as a republic seems on indefinite hold, the symbolic status of indigeneity is now rivalling the English monarchy as a way of legitimating our identity.