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.