Over an extremely dodgy live video stream provided by the ABC, I watched as the incoming Rudd Labor Government did what the previous government did not have the political stomach to do for over a decade, offering a formal apology to indigenous Australians, and in particular to the stolen generation. Although it is hard to get a full appreciation for the flow and delivery of the speeches owing to the poor quality of the footage at my end, I thought both Rudd and Nelson spoke admirably and did their best to capture the emotion and importance of the occasion with their words. It is not often that parliament is transformed into the stage for an outpouring of national pride and celebration, but certain scenes from the floor of the House of Representatives today managed to do just that. Through its actions so far, and particularly with this grandiose first step in parliament, the Rudd Labor Government has done almost a flawless job of commending itself to the people as a uniting and re-energising force for democracy in Australia.
And the Opposition? Brendan Nelson’s speech was on the whole quite graceful and delivered with true emotion, although there were a few moments where his focus seemed to fade towards a hapless justification of the Howard Government’s inexcusable delaying of today’s events, and the Coalition’s patrician view on compensation (shared with just a tad more compassion at present by the government). Reports are already in that certain parliamentary members of the Coalition boycotted the morning’s events, and that many people watching Nelson’s speech in live sites and in Canberra turned their backs at certain points in the speech. With respect to the former, I do not believe that history will judge those members kindly, and on this fairly auspicious day for the nation, I’m not mentioning their names here. With respect to the latter, I do think that Nelson probably deserved a better show from those watching than he got, but he and the political parties he represents do have a lot to answer for after a decade of neglect of this issue. Pictures, as they often do, tell the tale quite eloquently. The already published images of the Coalition members standing to applaud Rudd’s speech in parliament are a bit awkward; you can tell that some of them are out of their comfort zone, and being dragged along with something that they don’t wholeheartedly believe in. Given that some of them have spent the last decade of their political lives asserting their disbelief in the need for an apology, it’s probably not all that surprising.
Regardless of the history, which is indeed history, today is a day for healing old wounds and casting a die for a new future for Australia, both indigenous and non-indigenous. The major parties have an opportunity now to drive a bipartisan national agenda of investment in Australia’s indigenous communities, with the aim of raising education, health and mortality rates to respectable levels, from the obscene position they are now currently in. The stakes are high in a political sense, just as they are in a human sense. For the Rudd Labor Government, achieving real and lasting results in this area would arguably set it apart in political history as perhaps the greatest the country has yet seen. For the Opposition, there is an opportunity to reinvent itself with respect to so-called “soft” political issues such as reconciliation, and the restore trust and respect for its members amongst the indigenous community that has somewhat been lost over the course of the last decade.
One can not help wondering idly what John Howard made of the jubilant scenes in parliament today. Why did he so doggedly and so determinedly choose and then mercilessly maintain the course on reconciliation that he did, rather than embrace the issue with the humanity that Rudd’s words embodied this morning? I can’t recall the former Prime Minister ever being applauded in quite the same way during his decade in office as Rudd did today, but there is honestly nothing that Rudd did today that Howard could not (and should not) have done ten years ago.
In the same way that the former Prime Minister never, ever said sorry, I am not sure I will ever, ever, understand his mindset towards this issue.