It’s a shame such a vast tragedy was required to bring out the best in our parliamentarians, but it did. Yesterday’s condolence speeches, replacing Question Time, were deeply moving and a great credit to the Parliament. No word uttered in the chamber would have materially helped the survivors and the injured, or progressed the vile task of identifying and counting the dead, but they weren’t intended to. They were to give voice to the profound anguish that we all feel about those lives taken away by a capricious and terrifying foe, and that they did.
Julia Gillard commenced, her voice breaking initially. She spoke plainly, because that’s her style, telling stories from the events of the weekend, some of hope, others of grief and despair. Malcolm Turnbull then rose, also struggling to control his emotions, and gave a splendid speech about the beauty and terror of the country we live in. Wayne Swan and Julie Bishop also spoke well, the latter talking about her childhood memories of farewelling her father when he left to fight bushfires as a volunteer.
Their words echoed around a chamber still and silent. Some members struggled to hold back tears. All were stricken and stunned, but also determined to help those communities to rebuild, to comfort the survivors, to heal the injured. The North Queensland floods were also discussed, led by Wayne Swan, Warren Truss and Tony Windsor, reading a statement from Bob Katter, who remains in the affected areas.
In the Senate, too, politicians, some in tears, rose and spoke of their anguish and determination, through the morning until adjourning as a mark of respect.
At some point this week, we’ll return to politics as usual. Not today — Question Time has been cancelled again. The Prime Minister returns to Canberra today and will speak on the condolence debate. Jenny Macklin will remain in Victoria for the rest of the week. Seeing the Prime Minister yesterday on television, barely able to keep his grief and shock in check, was disconcerting but also oddly reassuring, as if giving the rest of us permission to acknowledge the unprecedented horror of what had happened. All sides will be looking to him to provide the full measure of the leadership both the Parliament and the country needs at the moment.
But sooner or later it will be back to normal. No use complaining about that. They’re politicians and politicking is what they do. However, for a while, maybe a few days, the great sense of loss will linger, infusing debate and dispute, tempering the normal tendency to attack each other. Like the rest of us, MPs and Senators will see the number of dead become names, and then faces, with grief-stricken families and friends, and then funerals, so many of them, a national nightmare from which we can’t awaken.
It’s hard to sustain petty politicking amid such anguish, and the longer that persists the better for a place too rife with partisanship at a time when we face serious enough problems even without the catastrophe Victoria has just endured.