On the eve of my public conversation with the Premier of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, as part of a Sydney Writers Festival event on the topic of Forgiveness, I felt nervous but prepared. It would be my first time moderating panels at the Festival, now the third-largest in the world behind the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Hay Festival. My usual way of alleviating nerves was to prepare thoroughly. But as the event showed all of those involved, you can’t prepare for the unexpected.
My invitation to moderate the discussion between the Premier and bestselling author Stephanie Dowrick was last minute – the Premier was a high-profile replacement for Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the global phenomenon Eat, Pray, Love, and a recent second memoir Committed, about marriage. (Gilbert’s late cancellation of her appearances due to a “family emergency” prompted the most-often heard comment of the Festival, to the effect that the speaker hoped, with barely disguised Schadenfreude, that the emergency was not a divorce.)
While I had other events to moderate, the Forgiveness event, at the 800-seat Sydney Theatre, would be the most prominent. Australia’s obsession with sport has entered the literary milieu, and the country now exhibits relentless enthusiasm for “destination” events and festivals of cultural immersion. On top of that, Kristina Keneally has been under intense media scrutiny, having become the leader of Australia’s most populous state in a back-room deal last December at the relatively young age of 40. Interest in her personally is tempered by a fierce loathing for her left-centralist Labor government, which by now has been in power for a staggering 15 years. She had agreed to participate in the Forgiveness event because of her lesser-known past life as a self-proclaimed “feminist Catholic” theologian, and her willingness to discuss her recovery from the still-birth of her daughter several years ago. I suspected she was also pleased to be associated with the left-leaning, book-loving Festival demographic because of her literary pedigree: she is married to the son of Booker Prize-winning author of Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally.
But self-revelation and politics tend not to mix well. On Friday morning, with the Premier’s event still 24 hours away, I woke to the news that her Transport Minister, David Campbell, a married man with adult children, had resigned the previous night ahead of the prime-time television screening of footage of him leaving a club for men who wish to have sex with other men. And that the Premier herself had subsequently described as “unforgivable” Campbell’s living with his secret for decades. I had thought I would be moderating a discussion on one of the great humane virtues for a literary festival: now the reminder sounded clearly that the personal is ever the political.
On the morning of the Forgiveness event, predictably my car wouldn’t start in the pouring rain, so when I got to the green room, the Premier and Stephanie Dowrick were already deep in conversation. Keneally turned to me and said that she wanted to address the Campbell resignation immediately, and expressed regret that she had used the very word that was the opposite of the theme of our Festival event.
Twenty minutes later on stage, she declared, “It is not unforgivable what he did. It is unacceptable to lie but
it is equally unacceptable to live in a community where your sexuality is not accepted. That is an extraordinarily difficult circumstance that he was in.”
I can provide Kristina Keneally’s exact words because they were notated by the handful of reporters perched on either side of the theatre like athletes waiting for the starter’s gun. With a good quote in shorthand, they raced back up the plush red carpet and out to whisper into the waiting ears of their editors, who in turn ran the words in their newspapers the next day. My mother called me early on Sunday morning to tell me my photo was in the Sydney Sun-Herald. Friends sent text messages to say the back of my head had made it on to the TV news.
Inevitably the media focused on who would become the new Transport Minister, but to me the newsworthy story was the Premier’s readiness to correct herself in public for reacting to the news about David Campbell too quickly and harshly. Perhaps if events like this one were held more regularly, all of us – whether we are in public or private life – might find it easier to forgive each other, and ourselves.
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