Yesterday an extraordinary thing happened, in public, in Parliament, live on national television – but it wasn’t the apology to the Stolen Generation (although, that too was quite the moment). Nor was it the deranged escapades of Chris Pearce, the Member for Aston, who found the need to demonstrate his displeasure at the profound proceedings unfolding before him by ignoring events and spending his time flicking through some magazine that we can only surmise wasn’t the latest edition of The Art of Healing .

No – yesterday, Kevin Rudd rescued Brendan Nelson the person from being suffocated under the polarising burden of being Brendan Nelson the Leader of the Coalition.

And a Coalition it truly is, a Coalition of the irreconcilable.

In highly charged, highly emotional moments of national importance like yesterday, moments that become headlines rather than footnotes in our national history, unity, political unity, or at the very least a well constructed façade of national unity is the necessary ingredient that makes the difference between an event being one of momentous celebration, or becoming one which leaves a potentially bitter after-taste.

With the Coalition descending back into its natural state of internal ideological conflict now that the artificial glue of government power has been removed, the chances of Brendan Nelson ever producing a response to Rudd’s speech that not only reconciled the views of those like Sophie Mirabella with the views of people like Petro Georgio, but also didn’t sound like a “yes, an apology BUT” moment that cuddled up to a Howard legacy that half of the Liberal Party would prefer to forget, were remote — especially since Nelson owes his leadership to the apology naysayers.

Nelson was left delivering a camel of a speech in Parliament, forced by petty internal party politics to say things which he knew would spoil the moment, things he did not believe, things that would likely leave a bitter political legacy for the future. He knew well that it would be “these things” for which Brendan Nelson would always be remembered when those of tomorrow look back to yesterday’s moment in history.

When the time came to deliver his camel, Brendan Nelson had the look of a man that, as one wit put it, “suddenly realised that he had chosen the wrong party”, and would now be forever burdened as the name behind a speech whose contents were not reflective of Brendan Nelson the person, but simply reflective of the cancerous political dynamics of the Coalition itself.

The public reaction to his speech was probably not that different to how Nelson himself would have reacted were he not a Member of Parliament and found himself listening to those very words on the lawns of Canberra with thousands of others.

Just when Nelson probably thought it couldn’t get any worse, when he’d accepted his inevitable fate of historical villain, Rudd delivered him a lifeline. Not only a lifeline that would forever have the effect of boosting those parts of Nelson’s speech that apologised and downplayed the list of caveats that accompanied it, not only a lifeline that created a media friendly image of national political unity as the two leaders stood together on the same side of the chamber presenting a gift to the House from the representatives of the Stolen Generation, but a lifeline that saved Brendan Nelson personally from shouldering the historical burden of being the spoiler, a spoiling role that more reflected the Coalition’s political dysfunction than any views that Brendan Nelson himself might have had, but could not say.

It’s hardly any wonder that of all the political players involved in yesterday’s proceedings, it was Nelson that looked the most emotional, particularly when he greeted the Stolen Generation members.

The three great images to come from yesterday were Rudd saying sorry, the standing ovation, and the presentation of a coolamon to the Speaker. Rudd threw Nelson a lifeline by deliberately bringing his political opponent centre stage into the symbolism of that last moment, guaranteeing that the historical narrative over yesterday’s event will be far kinder to Nelson than even he thinks he probably deserved.

We can only hope Nelson learned a lesson in political leadership yesterday – partisan politics has limits. But even if he didn’t, he certainly owes Rudd a beer.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey