Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Standing together

I've taken a week's annual leave this week, and am relishing just staying home with the "bounce-back" message on the email. I'm giving myself a week to re-familiarise myself with my book, and to try and get a particular chapter (the one on ritual reform and ritual criticism) drafted before the teaching semester starts.

But it's hard to concentrate, because I keep turning on the radio and checking various news pages on the web, to test out responses to this morning's apology.

I stood with Paul and several thousand others in Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne this morning. People stood quietly and attentively for around half an hour, applauding quietly and warmly at various moments after Rudd's apology and during the speech that followed. He spoke modestly, without flourish or rhetorical excess, but this was perfectly appropriate. This was a speech-act of a most profound kind; it was the act itself of saying "sorry" that needed to be foregrounded, and so it was, with great sincerity, with his three simple repetitions in the motion itself, and then his own first-person apologies in his supporting speech, on his own behalf, and of the parliament and of the nation.

I felt he not only captured the mood of the nation but also cathected it, in turn. We were not the only ones wiping tears from our eyes as he spoke, and as we heard him recount the devastating stories of children torn from their mothers, and torn apart from each other. Stories of reconciliation, too: the trooper with the whip who had taken three children away, and who many years later, sought them out, and asked their forgiveness; and finding it freely given. The insupportable misery of parents who lost their children and never saw them again. And we were reminded, too, that these policies were still in place in the 1970s, that there were still Parliamentarians in office today who had passed those laws.

Even when he finished, and applause filled the House, and filled the Square, under the big screen, the mood was pleased, but possibly still a bit overwhelmed. This was not a time for jubilation, but it seemed right to be filled with a sense of sadness and awe.

And then Brendan Nelson rose to speak. I thought he had spoken well yesterday, but today his speech seemed badly misjudged. He supported the apology, but seemed unable to find the same sympathetic directness of Rudd. Yes, Nelson's father had been taken from his teenage mother; yes, mothers had lost their sons and daughters in war; yes, Aboriginal people do still live in dreadful conditions. But so little of this seemed relevant; and much of it seemed hurtful and insensitive. To say that it was sometimes necessary to remove children from their parents; to discuss the problems of sexual abuse in Indigenous communities? On such a day? But we knew what to do. Almost as one, about three-quarters of the crowd turned our backs on the big screen. Some jeered and booed, some shouted. Mostly I just felt the instant dilution of the happy peace we had begun to feel.

Still, he too received a standing ovation, and the motion was passed unanimously. At least the members of the opposition who didn't support it were not there. Rudd stood, and applauded the one hundred members of the Stolen Generations in the gallery, and he was then presented with a ceremonial coolum. I hope it might find its place, eventually, next to the Mace which sits on the table when the House is in session.

Response around the nation is overwhelmingly positive. Of course some don't think it was necessary, or think it a political stunt; and of course it is not enough (Rudd has ruled out financial compensation). But listening to the radio I am hearing stories of news broadcasters not having enough tissues in the commentary box, of a man listening to the radio and being unable to get out of the car; and when he arrived late for a meeting, finding the receptionist watching the television with tears streaming down her face.

Radio talkback has picked up the themes of Rudd's empathy, and his love, his capacity to say, simply and directly, what the nation is feeling. I think he has surprised many people. I don't know when, if ever, an Australian prime minister has ever been described as "shining" before, as I heard him described a moment ago. But it's a good way to describe the day, I think, with its tears and its gladness. It's a good day. A shining day.

7 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Nice post, and thank goodness for all this. It's a strange thing, though, to applaud an apology. The upswelling of grief and memory seems a much more appropriate response, but I suppose the applause is a kind of corporeal expression of relief?

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, Karl. Yes, you're right: the applause was like a kind of collective, national exhalation of breath and relief. Perhaps it looked and felt odd? The comparison that leaps to mind this morning is the photograph of Michelle Williams and the family of Heath Ledger joyfully splashing each other in the waters of Cottesloe Beach after the funeral. After a long and traumatic period, after proper, due and formal ceremony, there is a moment of release, which is perhaps hard to comprehend (or remember) if you are not emotionally engaged in the ritual.

And because standing orders do not permit speaking from the gallery, applause was the proper way for the Stolen Generations to say "thank you", to accept the apology.

I think I was not the only one who wanted to make more noise, to shout and cheer, but who felt subdued by the sorrow that this apology has raised again in so many hearts.

Never has this nation been so awash with tears, I think.

One vignette: a stockman from the Northern Territory, taken from his family as a child, came to Canberra yesterday as one of the 100 representatives in the gallery. He was welcomed warmly by an usher, shown to a seat, and offered a cup of tea. And said he had never been treated with such kindness by whitefellas.

For non-Australians who might still be reading, there's an excellent account of the day's complexities by Tony Wrighte here. The picture tells the story, really.

Karl Steel said...

Lovely reply, Stephanie. Thank you. I find this all deeply moving, and I'm surprised. And thanks for the link to the Wrighte article. It's good even to see this:

"As Nelson rose to offer his apology to the Stolen Generations on behalf of his Opposition, the signs were already abroad that all was not roses. West Australian Liberal Wilson Tuckey had made great show of reciting louder than anyone the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of the parliamentary session, and then had marched out of the chamber. He would have nothing to do with any apology. Nor would fellow West Australian Don Randall, who was absent, and Victorian Sophie Mirabella, also missing. Others shuffled paper and read throughout Rudd's speech, and Peter Costello tapped on a laptop computer"

The strong reactions of the--I presume--bigots are evidence enough that the apology was no pro forma matter.

(I can't help but love the poetry of "tapped on a laptop computer.")

Stephanie Trigg said...

Oh, no, that's right. Nothing pro forma about this at all. The previous prime minister, John Howard, steadfastly refused to say "sorry", and the movement and the impulse have been bubbling along for years. The new opposition is divided on this question (hence the tortured complexity of Nelson's response), and it must also be said that there are many in this country who have no sympathy with the act.

But I think if we had seen footage of Peter Costello (the man who wanted, but never got the PM's job) typing during Rudd's speech, the mood of quiet attention at Federation Square in Melbourne would quickly have turned into something more hostile. What a provocative and rude thing to do!

meli said...

Thanks so much for sharing your feelings about the day, Stephanie. I didn't think it strange that people clapped. I could feel the relief from here.

flipsockgrrl said...

And how pleasing to see the Galaxy Poll results today, indicating that more people supported the apology this week than a fortnight ago. Thanks for your eloquent posts this week, Stephanie -- you've helped me and a few others to clarify our own thoughts and feelings.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Hi flipsockgrrl ... nice to make contact with another blogger on campus!

But yeah, and with Rudd's approval rating at 70% and Nelson's at 9% as preferred PM, I reckon those who think there has been a tangible shift of mood in this country have some solid evidence now. Don't know how long-lived it'll be, but.

Mind you, after last night's 4 Corners programme, seems the Libs still have a bit more soul-searching they want to do. Never have I seen so many rats swimming so fast away from the debris...