They held hands, wept – and cheered and clapped and cried some more.

All too often the Commonwealth Parliament is a dry, lonely, alienating place. Some days, though, it is truly the heart of the nation – or maybe the soul, the place from where the mood of the nation stems, eloquent of tongue and generous of spirit.

Today was one of these.

On the floor of the House of Representatives were representatives of the stolen generations, former prime ministers Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and former governor-general Sir William Deane.

The galleries were crammed. Thousands more watched broadcasts from the Great Hall of Parliament House and on the lawns outside.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd entered the chamber with his Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, to a standing ovation from the galleries. He told a packed house chamber that there comes a time in history when people had to reconcile the past with their future.

“Our nation Australia has reached such a time and that is why the parliament is today here assembled,” he said “to deal with this unfinished business of the nation.”

“To remove a great stain from the nation’s soul and in the true spirit of reconciliation to open a new chapter in the history of this great land Australia.”

The Prime Minister then said sorry – but also said much more.

“It is not sentiment that makes history,” Rudd said, grasping the nettle of “practical reconciliation”.

Australians are a passionate lot, he said, but also practical, so he proposed that the opposition join the government in forming “a war cabinet”, joint policy commission, to tackle Indigenous issues.

“The nation is calling on us the politicians to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point scoring, our mindlessly partisan politics and elevate this one, at least this one, area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide,” he said.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that there are no one size fits all responses to the needs of Indigenous Australians. He recognised the need for tailored, local solutions and clear targets.

He announced the commission would first develop and implement an effective housing strategy for remote communities during the next five years. Then, invoking the spirit of 1967, he foreshadowed another referendum.

If the first steps were successful, the commission would then work on the constitutional recognition of first Australians.

Parliament said sorry today, the Prime Minister explained, because it was parliament that made the laws that saw Aboriginal children taken from their parents.

But by foreshadowing a referendum, Rudd made reconciliation a truly national task – something for all of us, something, he said, we “might just be able to do”.

The galleries rose in a standing ovation. Rudd’s Labor colleagues rose in applause. Chris Pyne began to clap. Judi Moylan stood. The opposition joined in the ovation, too. There were hugs and tears.

An emotional Brendan Nelson responded. His speech was strongest when he invoked the words of Liberal Senator Neville Bonner, the first Aboriginal Australian to sit in the federal parliament: “In my experience of this world, two qualities are always in greater need – human understanding and compassion.”

There was more applause. More tears. A handshake between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition over the dispatch boxes.

They rose and walked together around the chamber to greet the representatives of the stolen generations. Gough Whitlam lifted clasped hands from his wheelchair as they passed by.

There were hugs and handshakes and more tears.

There was a gift from the stolen generation to the parliament.

And there were Aboriginal Australians in the gallery with t-shirts saying “Thanks”.

Watch the speech by clicking on the image below: