As a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery, I had the substantial honour of sitting in the House of Representatives chamber this morning to watch the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver the long-awaited national apology.
I started out inspired. I left halfway through Brendan Nelson’s speech almost in tears, and white-hot angry. But I’ll get to that.
All of the living Prime Ministers, save for one of course, entered the chamber a few minutes before the scheduled start. Keating, Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke came in together, and a packed public gallery full of black faces gave them a standing ovation.
And then Wilson Tuckey turned up. It was only for the Lord’s Prayer, which began proceedings. Wilson left the chamber before the ‘sorry’. It seems a strange thing for a Christian to do, but at least he had the decency not to flaunt his contempt and disrespect in the faces of hundreds of members of the Stolen Generations, who sat only metres away in the public gallery.
Unfortunately, Chris Pearce, the Member for Aston, wasn’t so forgiving. Pearce sat and casually flipped through a magazine throughout Rudd’s entire speech. At the part where Rudd was talking about the tragedy of infant mortality the “little ones” in Rudd’s words, Pearce was cracking a joke to the rather uncomfortable looking member of parliament sitting next to him.
In fact, Pearce was so against an apology, that he also sat and read through his own leader’s entire speech. When Rudd finished and received a standing ovation, Pearce was the only member of parliament to remain seated. It begs the question, why did he even show up?
As to Nelson’s speech, I got up and walked out just after the bit about “nepotism, the “squandering of resources”, and the s-xual abuse of children. Several black journalists there as guests of the gallery followed me.
It turns out we weren’t alone in our disgust. While the chamber itself remained quiet and respectful – an irony, in the circumstances — the thousand or so people in the Great Hall of Parliament stood, turned their backs on the massive TV screens, and began a slow clap. Several hundred people reportedly walked out.
Outside, thousands of people on the lawns of parliament booed, hissed and chanted.
Shortly after the chamber emptied, I ran into Valerie, an Aboriginal woman I’ve known for quite a few years. She was removed as a child, placed as a domestic with a white family, and then repeatedly raped (over several years) by her ‘protectors’.
Valerie thought it ironic that Nelson chose to speak of the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children by Aboriginal men, but mentioned nothing of the s-xual abuse of Aboriginal children by those who removed them “for their own benefit”.
“This was supposed to be our day, Stolen Generations. He had to go and try and ruin it by saying that,” Valerie told me.
But the important words here are “try and ruin it”, because Nelson didn’t succeed.
His speech, ultimately a homage to the conservatives inside and outside his party, will be remembered for what it was. Dog whistling. That Nelson chose to do so during a national apology occasion is a personal tragedy of epic proportions. I feel genuinely sorry for him.
The power of Rudd’s words, not Nelson’s — will endure. Rudd spoke of building bridges and historical truths. Of dark chapters and of bright futures.
“This is not the black armband view of history. It’s just the cold, uncomfortable, confronting truth,” said Rudd.
Nelson, by contrast, spoke of s-xual abuse, ‘nepotism’ and squandering of Aboriginal resources. He claimed it was the work of other generations.
Someone else’s fault.
Rudd inspired. Nelson tried to divide. Rudd will be remembered. Nelson won’t.
So where to from here? Of course, Rudd must deliver on his promises to halve the infant mortality gap. He must deliver real health, housing and education to Aboriginal people and having defined his leadership so early on this issue, I have little doubt many in the media will seek to hold him to account.
Rudd’s talk of a bi-partisan committee headed by himself and the Leader of the Opposition to tackle Aboriginal disadvantage is a good gesture. Now if the Opposition can only find itself a leader, then there’s hope on that front.
For Indigenous Australia, the talk over the next generation will be of a treaty, or a national settlement.
Whatever you choose to call it, Australia has an opportunity, not to mention a mood, for change.
The challenge that confronts us all now is whether or not we, as a nation, are mature enough to face this now, or whether we condemn future generations of our children to deal with this issue, and all the tragedy and misery that will inevitably ensue if we fail to act.
Given the sincerity of Rudd’s speech, and the genuine support of many of his colleagues, there’s some reason for optimism.
Let’s hope Rudd’s right, that we are at a new beginning.