Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More strange conjunctions: Welcome to Country

Two days ago I was speculating on the uncomfortable yoking together of my work on the Order of the Garter and the prospect of John Howard joining the Order. David put it brilliantly: "two things you've had more-or-less emotion-charged relationships with in separate boxes suddenly tipped into the same compartment."

Today, another odd conjunction. This morning I was down at the State Library, reading John Nichols' edition for the Roxburghe Club of Edward VI's Literary Remains. (Does anyone else familiar with the Roxburghe Club frontispiece think that the man with a forked beard, wearing a floppy cap, and a long, wide-sleeved robe sitting reading looks a lot like Chaucer?)

Soon after he was crowned, Edward, at the tender age of about 14, set about reforming the Order's statutes, to get rid of all traces of "poperie and naughtines" (Ok, that was his first draft), like the references to St George. He insisted on the Sovereign's rights to make changes to the rituals and the Statutes whenever he wanted. His reforms were dramatically overturned when Mary came to the throne and restored the king her father's, Henry VIII's, Statutes.

What a contrast to proceedings in Canberra this morning. The opening of the new Parliament retained its long traditions, but began with a welcome to country for the first time.

It was done quietly, modestly, without undue fanfare. (I'm trying to find a video link to post, but have had no luck yet: if I'm successful, I'll update this entry.)

Quiet music of didgeridoo, sticks, and a shell accompanied Matilda House-Williams' dignified welcome to country, anticipating what we anticipate will be an even more dramatic and difficult piece of "sorry business" tomorrow, when the Parliament will make formal apology to the stolen generations of Aboriginal people. It is amazing, really, that it has taken so long for this ritual, now not uncommon in universities, cultural ceremonies, even the Commonwealth and Olympic games, to be performed in Canberra, but it was wonderful, even so.

Rudd looked moved, almost to tears, I thought (or was that just me? or was he offering up a quiet prayer?) as he sat holding the message stick presented to him by the grandchildren of Matilda House-Williams. He spoke to thank her, and hoped this would inaugurate a new custom for the Parliament, which was greeted by loud applause. Not a bad way to effect institutional change. Brendan Nelson, leader of the opposition, also spoke quietly and modestly, acknowledging human imperfection and agreeing that as long as he had anything to do with it, "we will have a welcome from Nunawal and their ancestors." (Is it churlish to remark that it might have been more graceful to say that they would always ask for a welcome?)

Then it was down to another form of traditional business, as the two houses gathered in their respective chambers; and then the Governor-General sat in the Senate and sent Black Rod off to summon the Reps for a joint sitting.

The Federal Black Rod seems to have dispensed with traditional court dress, perhaps when a woman took over the role? She was wearing a very subtly cut dark suit, with longish flared skirt, not unreminiscent of the shape of a frock-coat, with an elegant aubergine silk jabot. She walked out of the Senate, as straight and tall as the Rod she held upright, and the camera followed her down the deserted halls, corridors and courtyards. Her heels clicked authoritatively on the polished floors. When she arrived at the doors of the lower chamber, she raised the Rod to shoulder height, and held it perfectly level. She then tapped with its lower end on the door, and spoke her request. The doors could not be slammed in her face, as they do in some other Houses, because they are swing doors! Still they closed the doors and made her wait a moment, though, as is customary. But once she had delivered her message, the House then rose and followed her back down the corridors. It is sometimes traditional in Westminster for the lower house to take its time on this walk: there was no such show of autonomy and resistance to royal, or vice-regal command here.

As the members of the lower house came into the Senate and took their seats, I saw Julia Gillard (new Deputy PM), and I thought, she had gone to the wrong side, such was my habitual view. But of course, she now sits on the Government side! She and Rudd could clearly be seen waving happily over at their opponents on the other side of the chamber, and I bet that's an unofficial parliamentary tradition on a change of government. This is only the sixth in sixty years.

At the moment I'm working on the idea of "ritual change" in the Order of the Garter: the way the Order reforms and revises itself, and the way it so easily accommodates radical, even violent change. The official modern view is that the Order is sufficiently flexible and responsive to the demands of modernity that it can accommodate both tradition and innovation; an almost heroic blend of old and new, medieval and modern. This morning's ceremonies in Canberra look like a textbook case. Traditionalists will lament the loss of court dress, white lace, breeches, and marquisite-embuckled shoes, but quite frankly, I don't think a possum-skin cloak ever looked so good.

[Update: Pavlov's Cat has found a link of the first part of the welcome: the video skips a bit and goes back to Skynews, but if you persist, you get to uninterrupted footage:

1 comment:

Pavlov's Cat said...

Welcome to Country

should do it. Hope this link to the Welcome works!

The possum-skin cloak is indeed magnificent.