As Kevin Rudd said, it was overdue. It was delivered after a decade of denial and delay by the previous government. Bringing Them Home, the report on the enforced removal of up to 50,000 mixed-blood children between 1900 and 1970, had recommended a simple but historic Sorry back in 1997.
We had to wait until now for moral leadership at the national level. It’s not to denigrate the man to say that never again will Kevin Rudd reach such noble heights. Rather it is to signal the sheer decency of his achievement. And he did it without flamboyance, but with a quiet, genuine eloquence. There was not a trace of grandstanding in his delivery.
There were tears in Kevin Rudd’s eyes as the parliament, the crowded gallery and huge crowd outside rose to give him a standing ovation. And there was not a dry eye among the thousands that assembled at the open-air broadcast in Eveleigh Street in the Sydney suburb of Redfern – Australia’s little Harlem. All over Sydney the Aboriginal flag flew from town halls, schools and even Sydney University two blocks from Eveleigh Street.
It was an Aboriginal moment in parliament too. It was their day and the symbolism of so many indigenous people in places of honour in the parliamentary chamber could not be missed. To reinforce the symbolism that they were the guests of honour, Rudd led the Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson and Jenny Macklin, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, up the stairway to meet and welcome them. Then Rudd received from them the ceremonial carving to mark the occasion and invited Nelson to the government side of the chamber to jointly present it to the Speaker of the House.
If the attempt to be inclusive is one of the trademarks of Ruddism, participatory democracy is not. Greens Senator Bob Brown’s point that an Aborigine should have been asked to respond in parliament to the apology was a fair one. But there was the practical difficulty of selecting one, as the previous Howard government had abolished ATSIC, the representative and elected body for indigenous peoples. In the best of all possible worlds, that would have been the body to approach for an Aboriginal partner in this day of reconciliation. The absence of any commitment by Rudd to resurrect a representative assembly for Aborigines is a real weakness, although he did promise a genuine partnership with local indigenous communities.
Part of Rudd’s triumph was to drag the Tories along with him in the apology. Nelson’s speech had some qualifications, reservations and gratuitous, even insulting, moments (the crowd outside grew restive and started to boo and slow clap and turned their backs to the giant screen, something the commercial networks, and even ABC radio, broadcast, but not ABC TV). Nevertheless, he did in the end join the apology. When Rudd reached across the dispatch box to shake Nelson’s hand, it was as though he was pulling him on board. The more backwoods MPs from the Opposition had boycotted the session.
For many kids this day will be like the day of the moon landing, or the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, or Che murdered, or JFK shot, was for previous generations; they will remember where they were if only because lots of schools watched the apology. It means these rising generations will inherit an Australia which has, if not a clean sheet, at least an honest one.
Yes, Rudd and his government have other mountains to climb, but at inspirational moments like this they have raised the hope, and more importantly the belief, that these mountains can be climbed too.
It was one of Australia’s best days.