Kevin Rudd’s finest hour came just weeks into his time as Prime Minister. He will probably never again reach the heights of either oratory or approval that he did today, delivering Parliament’s formal, bi-partisan apology for past treatment of Australia’s Aborigines.
"Surely, this is the spirit – the unfulfilled spirit – of the 1967 referendum," he said, addressing not only a capacity crowd in Parliament, but millions of Australians watching on television sets and computer monitors in public squares, private homes and workplaces throughout the nation.
The 1967 referendum formalised the recognition of Australia’s Aboriginal people. White Australians voted overwhelmingly then to say that their black countrymen and women must be counted in the nation’s population.
Today, Opposition leader Brendan Nelson echoed Rudd’s words, admitting that the past treatment of Aborigines in Australia had been "brutal."
Outside, two young Aboriginal women hugged each other, tearfully wailing ancient chants in memory of the 50,000 – mainly light skinned – children of their race who were forcibly removed from their families in the time of the Stolen Generation policies.
But there was pride, too, as a group of Aboriginal marchers, with their black, red and gold flags held high, strode in front of a giant television screen erected on the lawns of Parliament House to accommodate the overflow crowd. Kevin Rudd was cheered constantly throughout his speech by the mostly white crowd that had gathered for the occasion.
The enthusiasm of those present was unmistakable. This was the biggest crowd seen outside Parliament since November 1975, when thousands arrived spontaneously, to protest the dismissal of the Whitlam government.
The veteran political writer, Mungo MacCallum, was appalled when he first saw the plans for the new Parliament House, which Queen Elizabeth opened in May 1988.
A long time member of the Press Gallery in the old Parliament House, Mungo made no secret of the fact that he was shocked by the distance between the space set aside for the Press Gallery in the new house, and its non-members’ bar.
The non members’ bar, in the old house, had been a busy hub both for reporters and their usually reliable sources, in those days. The centre of their professional lives, in fact. Indeed, your curmudgeon suspects some of those old time reporters might still be down there, almost 20 years later, just a little confused about developments since then.
But does distance matter? You bet it does. The non members’ bar in the new house, two floors down and two buildings away from the new press gallery, never attracted the joyful crowds that flocked to the old one. It soon failed. So badly, in fact, that the space allocated to it was subsequently cleared out and put to other uses.
Among other misuses, it became a venue for women’s aerobics. But please don’t tell Mungo. The spectre of all those women in black leotards, exercising to loud music, would be too much for the old fellow.
That thought depresses your curmudgeon, too.
Luckily, though, the new offices in the new parliament’s press gallery are big enough to accommodate fridges.
Kevin Rudd’s education revolution hasn’t come a moment too soon. Some of his fellow MPs need it urgently, the rogue National Party Senator, Barnaby Joyce, among them.
Joyce issued a statement last week, urging Rudd to "reign in his razor gang". The good Senator accused the Government of "sinking the slipper" into country people, who didn’t vote for it last November, when making its razor gang cuts.
He went on to make some powerful points about subsidies and rural production. But you are still a prime candidate for Rudd’s remedial spelling classes, Barnaby. And what is a good Country Party lad doing messing about with homophones, anyway?
Your spelling, Barnaby, your spelling! We must tell you this pleignly. It’s bad.
It hurts your curmudgeon make this admission. But Aboriginal elder Matilda House was an inspired choice to welcome members and guests to the opening of the new session Parliament in Canberra on behalf of Australia’s Aboriginal people.
Clad in a full length possum skin coat, the barefoot Matilda – now a proud grandmother – did that in great style, on the eve of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations.
She was well qualified to speak. As a spirited – and cheeky – 12-year-old, Matilda was separated from her parents on the orders of a white mission manager in Cowra, where she lived with her nine brothers and sisters. This white boss classed Matilda as "uncontrollable" and dispatched her to the Parramatta Industrial School, which she now describes as a "detention centre".
Matilda, who still speaks of "shame" when she recalls those times, was once punished by being ordered to polish the board floors of a hall as big as the Members’ Hall in Parliament House. But Matilda had friends. And she says they snuck in, secretly, to help.
The new Spirit of Reconciliation in Parliament House hasn’t grabbed everyone just yet. Former Carnarvon publican Wilson Tuckey, now a senior Liberal MP, stood above it all yesterday, on one of the balconies overlooking the Members’ Hall, where the welcoming ceremony was held.
Tuckey made news in Perth, many years ago, when he complained that a group of Aborigines had attacked him in a Carnarvon street. There was some skepticism about that report at the time. At least two white residents admitted that Tuckey had, indeed, been surrounded by angry Aborigines. But the witnesses said that happened after he drove his car into the group.
John Howard never would, never could, allow the word "sorry" escape his lips, as Kevin Rudd did three times when issuing his historic apology to the Stolen Generations. His response to the landmark Mabo decision, of June 1992, was to draw up a 10-point plan, designed to restrict Aboriginal land rights, as tightly as possible.
His deputy in the first Howard Government, elected in 1996, Tim Fischer, was even more blunt. The otherwise amiable Fischer spoke, bitterly, about "buckets of extinguishment."
John Howard’s "practical reconciliation" always had a hard edge to it. Right up to the intervention he ordered, last year, into the affairs of Northern Territory Aborigines.
So what should we all make of Heavy Kevvie, now that he has been with us for two full months? He is certainly not a big personality, like the three previous Labor Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all were. But the little fellow is a dynamo.
Just a few hours after the East Timorese President, José Ramos Horta, was shot by armed rebels, Kevin Rudd announced that he would go to the tiny country, without delay, to offer support. This while he is fighting inflation, launching an education revolution and calling community cabinet meetings and organising the 2020 Summit in April, to gather new long term goals for Australia. What’s more, he is doing all that with meticulous care. This is mind bending stuff.
Just let me sit down for a minute.
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