A festival atmosphere was evident on the lawns outside Parliament House in Canberra yesterday. Thousands of people celebrated outside in the wake of Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations. That much was evident from the television broadcast and the reports from friends and family who made it to Parliament House and its immediate vicinity.
Aboriginal flags flew and Indigenous performers performed for the crowds, many of whom had travelled to the city from right across the country especially for the occasion. Crowds in the Great Hall and on the lawns outside Parliament wept, cheered and clapped after Mr Rudd said "sorry", in scenes that were repeated at gatherings across the country.
People jumped and whooped with the emotion of the occasion in celebrating a moment that many of them, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, believed would not come within their lifetime.
The celebration was only briefly interrupted by a strong negative response to the Opposition leader who in his speech in reply to that of the Prime Minister strayed into an ill-timed and insensitive defense of the previous Government’s intervention in the Northern Territory.
Within the parliamentary chamber, the opening of the business of Parliament with the Lord’s Prayer, while it functions as a remnant of Christendom which some would want want to question, seemed on this occasion to be strangely, if momentarily appropriate. In the light of the first item of business …“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth .. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…” It definitely caught the mood of the moment.
The recital of the words of apology by Mr Rudd took on an almost liturgical force. His speech in support of the motion was by turns emotionally direct in its recital of stories and experiences of people who had lived through the experience of separation from their family and community, and morally clear and intellectually clinical in the justification for the apology.
Kevin Rudd spoke in a register that made clear his personal engagement with his appeal to a shared humanity across a deep cultural and historical divide but also one that gave expression to his role and responsibility as the Prime Minister to speak on behalf of the Australian community and to give moral leadership in clearing the space for future action by speaking the truth about the past.
While it was a speech that drew on a presumed shared moral framework and language, the rhetoric was shaped by moments of almost unconscious biblical resonance and was powered by moral convictions deeply rooted in the Prime Minister’s faith commitments
(c) Doug Hynd, an Ekklesia associate, is a civil servant and also lectures at St Mark's National Theological Centre in Canberra, Australia. He is Vice President of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ), signatory to a radical biblical statement on Christian confession in today's world.