Academic journal article About Performance

Unsettled Country: Coming to Terms with the Past

Academic journal article About Performance

Unsettled Country: Coming to Terms with the Past

Article excerpt

This article has its origins in a paper delivered at the 2008 conference of the British Australian Studies Association. The theme of the conference was "Changing Australia" and, in inviting a number of theatre and performance specialists to give keynote papers, the organisers were making a bold statement about the importance of performances of all sorts in the construction and transmission of our ideas about who we are and why we are the way that we think we are, and of the contribution performance scholars can make to an enhanced understanding of social process.1 My work in recent years has been increasingly concerned with social performance and, in particular, with the nexus between place and performance, and with the complex ways in which place and performance interact with each other, often activating memory and a sense of the past. This in turn has led to a fascination with the grounded performativity of Aboriginal remembering in which the land itself is the repository of history, story and knowledge. My approach to this work involves a combination of performance analysis and ethnographic enquiry, and it has reinforced for me the importance of both performance and place in the deeply contested social and political processes through which Australia is being imagined as a nation, to use Benedict Anderson's concept (Anderson 1983).

The article focuses on two important events, each with a strong performance dimension, each with some claim to be playing a role in 'changing' Australia: the Prime Minister's Apology to the Stolen Generations in Parliament on 13th February 2008, and the Welcome to Country that had opened the 42nd Parliament the day before. My intention in bringing a performance studies approach to bear on events that have been widely discussed by political analysts and other cultural commentators is both to explore their nature as live performances and to reflect on some important issues concerning reception that such an approach brings to the fore.


At 9.30 a.m. on 13th February 2008, as the first item of business on the first day of the 42nd Parliament, the Clerk of the House announced a motion, to be moved by the Prime Minister, "Offering an Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples." While the Prime Minister's speech focused substantially on the practice of child removal documented in Bringing Them Home (1997), the report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission that had been ordered by a previous Labor government, the words used by the Clerk of the House in announcing the motion do not limit the scope of the apology in this way. Indeed, the Prime Minister's opening words invite his listeners to honour the Indigenous people of this country and to reflect on their past mistreatment, an exhortation that might seem to presage acknowledgement of wrongs that go beyond even the practice of child removal. This fact has not received much comment, and the motion is now generally referred to as the Apology to the Stolen Generations, which is what it really is. The slippage does, however, raise some significant issues, as will be discussed later in this article.

Other parliaments and institutions have been moved in recent years to issue formal apologies for the sufferings caused to particular groups by their policies and actions in the past.3 The historic event constituted by the Australian apology can thus be seen in a much broader international context arising from attempts in many other places to acknowledge and attempt to deal with the suffering caused by colonial and other occupations, invasions and displacement of peoples. My focus here is the Australian apology and my analysis remains anchored in the local as it must in order to account for historical background, social impact and particular circumstances but it is evident that what is happening in Australia finds echoes elsewhere.

This was a solemn occasion, long awaited, long deferred due to the obduracy of former Prime Minister, John Howard who steadfastly refused to utter the word "sorry", even though half a million citizens had demonstrated in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne to say it for him. …

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