"A beautiful, beautiful day"
The moment so many, many people longed for finally arrived – Kevin Rudd, as Prime Minister of Australia, and the national parliament this morning offered a formal apology to the Stolen Generations for their removal as children from their families and communities, and the terrible hardship, pain, grief and suffering they experienced as a result.
So many people were feeling excited, but mixed with a solemn sense of remembering, in the lead-up to the apology at 9.00 am. This was particularly so amongst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country, but especially the surviving members of the Stolen Generations and their families. There was a palpable buzz around Melbourne this morning as people gathered at various places to watch on big screens the apology broadcast by the ABC from parliament. I heard there was a big crowd at the Aborigines Advancement League and a huge one in Federation Square.
Of course, there was the great convergence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous supporters from across the country in Canberra, and they gathered on the lawns of Parliament House.
I watched it at work with my colleagues and a few other visitors.
From the text of the resolution that Rudd read in parliament, and his speech in favour of the resolution, it was clear that this apology was pretty much what so many people, the Stolen Generations in particular and their supporters, were hoping for. It was also very apparent from Rudd's speech that he had caught the mood and hopes of people around Australia - Stolen Generations members, others in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, other advocates for Reconciliation and people generally. It was clear that Rudd did 'get it'.
Despite the speculation in the lead-up, Rudd had made it clear that his apology would mention the word 'Sorry'. What was not clear was whether he would bow to the Liberal opposition's pressure to not use the term Stolen Generations in the apology.
Although Rudd was not overly passionate or animated in his delivery – he is clearly not the type of Labor orator that Keating or Whitlam were – he clearly showed respect to the Stolen Generations, and honoured their pain and suffering, and was sincere in his apology in terms of his words and intent. It was also clear that he was speaking to them, to the Indigenous community overall, and to the whole of the nation as well.
On the other hand, I could barely bring myself to keep listening to Opposition leader Nelson's speech. I thought it mean-spirited, terribly insensitive, and had many comments that were so out of place for this event. It was terribly narrow because it, in the main, appealed to the Liberal party faithful, rather than the people of Australia as a whole, or the Stolen Generations directly. I wasn't sure if Brendan Nelson just didn't 'get it', as some people suggested to me, or that he did get it but was capitulating his moral beliefs for his leadership and position in the party and saying what the party wanted to hear from him. I am still making up my mind which is worse. Ultimately, it was Nelson's lost opportunity, and ultimately the Liberals' lost opportunity.
All the same, if you consider how over the last 10 years of the Howard era it seemed impossible to imagine this national apology by the government - and the parliament - actually happening, Nelson's position was not surprising. It doesn't make it less distasteful.
The strength of feeling by people across the country against Nelson's mealy-mouthed speech is quite clear. But it was most clearly demonstrated to me by an event this afternoon.
I had gone down to Federation Square this afternoon with my colleagues to catch the last half-hour of the free concert – to hear Archie Roach and Ruby Hunger perform – to celebrate the apology. When I was catching the tram back to work from Federation Square, a rather distinguished looking elderly man waiting for a tram saw that I had the Aboriginal flag on my t-shirt, and started to ask me how I felt about the apology. Unsure what reception I'd get, I told him I was happy about it. He then told me how pleased he was at Rudd's speech and the apology, and how disgusted he was at Nelson's speech. He wished me well and popped on his tram. I was touched that this apology had reached out to touch so many people that I wouldn't have expected it to.
Later, when I got back to work and trawled through the internet coverage of the public reception to the apology and the speeches, and saw footage of crowds, clearly upset at Nelson's words, booing him and turning their backs to him during his speech, and there on screen I saw the same elderly man with the shock of white hair yelling 'Get him off' at Brendan Nelson!
However bad people may be feeling, and however much we may resent Nelson for stealing this day's attention from the Stolen Generations, all in all we know that this day means so much to the Stolen Generations, and Kevin Rudd helped make that possible.
As Archie Roach said to us as he wrapped up his set at Fed Square, "it's a beautiful, beautiful day!"
Update: The full transcript of Rudd's speech is available for download (PDF) from the Parliament website. However, if that link stops working (for instance if the Parliament House website people move it off the front page and the link breaks), you can download it (PDF) here instead. You can also hear/download (MP3) the audio of Rudd's speech off the ABC website.
I've added the image above to capture how I feel about the moment. It's off The Age website, photo by Glen Mccurtayne.
[Updated 10:47 am Thursday 14 February 2008]