Keating's Redfern Speech

Keating’s Redfern speech #

On the 10th of December, 1992, The Prime Minister, Paul Keating delivered a landmark speech in Redfern, at that time a disadvantaged inner suburb of Sydney.

According to by Joel Deane, speechwriter, poet and novelist, Don Watson claimed the speech as his; that he had authored it and Keating had delivered it word for word.

Watson added that Keating deserved credit for having the courage and conviction to deliver the speech holus bolus.

Unsurprisingly, Keating came out swinging, sledging Watson for claiming authorship and claiming the speech as his because Watson was giving voice to his sentiments.

Joel Deane argues that Watson seems to have forgotten the first rule of speechwriting: the words you write are not yours, they belong to the speechmaker. That’s part of the deal when you sign on to be a speechwriter for a politician.


The full speech can be read here:

Progress towards healing and reconciliation with the first Australians has been slow and often characterised as two steps forward and one or two backwards.

The 1967 referendum to include the first nation people in the census, followed by Whitlam’s 1973 gesture:

“On this day we will recall the repossession of the Gurindji of Wave Hill, when the Prime Minister said, “Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands this piece of earth itself as a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever.”

Keating’s vision was backed up by practical steps - native title legislation, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the establishment of a national representative body and the commissioning of the Bringing Them Home report.

The Mabo litigation had commenced in Queensland in 1982, when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen introduced the Queensland Coastal Islands Declaratory Bill. Its effect was to wipe out any property rights held by Torres Strait Islanders when the Torres Strait Islands became part of the colony of Queensland, and ensure that the only property rights which existed in the Torres Strait were those granted by the crown.

If the law applied by the courts did recognise native title rights which existed before colonisation and which survived the assertion of crown sovereignty, this Bill tried to do away with all such rights and interests. By 4–3, the High Court found the Queensland law in conflict with the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act.

Scare campaigns by rabid right wingers saw this as a threat to all property owned by whites.

Reaction #

Pauline Hanson: #

Howard’s Intervention #

Noel Pearson #

When Paul Keating spoke at Redfern, he did not do so as the leader of the Labor Party which formed the government of the day.

He did so as the 24th prime minister of Australia. As such, he carried the mantle of that office, and spoke for it. We in Australia are apt to think of the utterances of our national leaders as their own personal effusions.

We forget they speak for something beyond their personal tenure, they speak for an enduring office. The breakthrough speeches in Australia have been the consequence of leaders making or using an occasion. Keating’s Redfern speech used the occasion of the launch of the International Year of Indigenous Peoples to speak to a matter that had long been gnawing at his soul, which he had now formulated as a cornerstone of his prime ministerial program.

Facing history was the starting point. The words are well-known but bear repetition:

“Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers.

“We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

“With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask - how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.”

This passage resonated across the continent and roiled the national soul, and gave fodder to the culture and history wars.

The rhetorical device used by Keating in using personal empathy for the actions of his own ancestors and of those on whose part he spoke, gave rise to the complaint contemporary Australians could and should not be held responsible for what happened in the past.

While electorally useful to Keating’s political opponents in the emerging cultural war, this complaint ignored the plain words later in the speech:

“Down the years, there has been no shortage of guilt, but it has not produced the responses we need. Guilt is not a very constructive emotion. I think what we need to do is open our hearts a bit. All of us.”

The profundity of Keating’s subject and the directness with which he chose to confront it meant that it would not be taken lightly. This was strong medicine. While searching for its soul, he was probing the central nervous system of the nation. Of course there would be convulsions.

Keating gave the speech that Edmund Barton never did. That Alfred Deakin never did. That John Curtin and Ben Chifley never did. That all our prime ministers up to and including Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam never did. That Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke never did.

It was not that Paul Keating made this speech out of some idiosyncratic motivation. It was that some prime minister at some point in Australia’s history had to give this speech. Keating’s genius was to recognise the time had long fallen due for it.

The nation needed these words. This is the sense in which the words of a speech are not just words: they are words that make (or diminish) a nation.

We little appreciate the extent to which Australia has changed these past 20 years. Indigenous people were present in the national policy concerns before then, but always at the margins.

Keating brought indigenous Australians and the challenge of reconciliation to the main table of national priorities.

Paul Kelly #

The Australian - 2012 Keating did far more than deliver the Redfern speech. In essence, he made indigenous policy his main priority in time and politics. He was the first prime minister who did this and he will be the last. An element in the visceral rejection of Keating at the 1996 election arose from his quest for Aboriginal justice.

Keating’s brave but reckless pursuit of reconciliation contrasts with Julia Gillard’s calculated timidity in proposing and abandoning the referendum this term on indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution. The contrast is illuminating. Keating will be remembered for his December 1992 Redfern speech when he said it was time “to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows” while Gillard will be remembered for her “misogyny” speech, essentially about herself, though many women have identified with its aggressive assault on Tony Abbott as a symbol of male power structures. Nothing better reveals the pathetic nature of the “values” debate in parliament.

The reason Keating’s speech is admired today is because he transcended the tyranny of the moment. It could never happen now. A calculating poll-driven leader would never have delivered the Redfern address. For a leader who took notice of spin doctors it would have been inconceivable.

Can you imagine the horror of today’s tacticians confronted by the contemporary equivalent of telling the Australian public to recognise “it was we who did the dispossessing”?

The Redfern speech was a classic use of the power of high office involving Keating and speechwriter Don Watson. Just them. It was not cleared in the PM’s office. It was written by Watson, dispatched to Keating, read by him at breakfast and delivered unamended. Nobody demanded this speech; no newspapers called for it; no focus groups wanted it; no Labor ministers recommended it. This was a seizure of the moment.

The speech and Mabo constitute a nexus. They are, in fact, inseparable. One cannot be grasped without reference to the other. The High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision rejected the doctrine of terra nullius, asserted that native title existed and threw down a challenge to the political system.

Keating was captured by the audacity of the court. With the conservative class in protesting uproar, he said the court had “rejected a lie and acknowledged a truth”. When I interviewed Keating in 2008 he said: “Mabo was the hand history dealt me and I was never going to walk away from it.” Ultimately, it is that simple. Mabo created the conditions for the Redfern speech of atonement. After his 1993 re-election Keating made negotiation of the Native Title Act his main priority. He paid an immense price.

Larissa Behrendt #

Sadly, the Redfern speech is still the high-water mark for inclusion Larissa Behrendt, December 10, 2012

Twenty years ago, Keating offered a national narrative of genuine recognition.

WHEN I was a law student in Sydney in the late 1980s it was an urban myth that taxi drivers wouldn’t take you to Redfern. The ABC’s critically acclaimed series Redfern Now might show how far we have come from this stereotype; but the incident last week where a taxi driver refused to take internationally renowned Aboriginal artist Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu in St Kilda shows how far we still have to go.

So if taxi drivers believed that Redfern was a no-go zone, imagine what it must have been like to hear 20 years ago that the prime minister was paying the neighbourhood a visit.

I was a recent law graduate when I heard that Paul Keating was giving a speech in Redfern Park and, like the curiosity of seeing a two-headed chicken, I went with my cousin to check it out. Although we thought a visit from the PM was a surreal event, I had no idea what a significant historic moment I was about to witness. Keating got up to speak in front of the sceptical and the curious. In a community that was always quick to voice an opinion, the crowd was uncharacteristically hushed.

Although it was two decades ago today, I can still remember the shock I felt when I heard the words:

‘‘We took the traditional land … We brought the diseases and murders. We took the children from their mothers … How would I feel if this was done to me?’’

It wasn’t the clarity of the words or their contentiousness. What surprised me most was to hear the leader of the country speak in a way that made me feel like he was speaking from my perspective. In subsequent viewings of the speech, I hear the crowd cheer at some of those moments but I don’t recall that. My memory - which is not correct - is that there was silence.

After growing up in a school system that taught nothing of the removal of Aboriginal children or of the violence of colonisation, that did nothing to link the injustices of the past with the uneven playing field of the present, this seemed a monumental acknowledgment of an indigenous perspective of history. It was the first time I had heard a political leader express a perspective that seemed to appreciate our viewpoint.

It was significant that Keating chose to deliver this speech in Redfern. The symbolism of this, coming to our community, saying this to us, rather than in Parliament or to a group of like-minded white people, made it all the more moving.

Keating said: ‘‘The plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all.’’ He said we should recognise the things we have in common and went on to say, ‘‘Guilt is not a very constructive emotion. I think what we need to do is open our hearts a bit. All of us.’’

We weren’t ‘‘us’’ and ‘’them’’. Our fates were tied together. We ALL needed to open our hearts a little. At that moment I really believed we could meet halfway.

I remember the elation of the crowd when the speech was over. But I have to confess my naivety. I thought I had witnessed a significant step forward in an inclusive national narrative, where I assumed there would only be steps forward. I was young.

Keating’s vision was backed up by practical steps - native title legislation, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the establishment of a national representative body and the commissioning of the Bringing Them Home report. But it was not unifying or shared among other Australians and the shift came with the Howard government. Keating’s speech now finds itself as a high-water mark.

No government since Keating has had his vision for Aboriginal affairs. He saw Aboriginal people as a key part of the solution, not part of the problem. Today the leading ideologies are punitive welfare reform (which in the Northern Territory hasn’t improved school attendance but suicide rates have increased) and a suspicion of community-run organisations. There are funding cuts to essential programs such as those focused on domestic violence. There are ever-increasing numbers of indigenous people in custody - with women and children most over-represented. Deaths in custody continue to cause deep concern and anger in the Aboriginal community (Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, T.J. Hickey in Redfern and Kwementyaye Briscoe in Alice Springs) despite The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that Keating mentioned in his speech.

But 20 years later, walking through Redfern, much has changed. Its urban gentrification has been accompanied by the local Aboriginal community’s determination to make it a safe, close-knit and inclusive place.

The most profound difference in the community from the day of Keating’s speech is something I was a part of that day but did not appreciate: the emergence of an educated, professional class. It was not so much our individual economic mobility, it was the impact our presence would have in broader ways.

The best example of this is the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, which has helped the medical profession to be more aware and responsive to the needs of indigenous people, mentoring a new generation of indigenous doctors who have shaped the way medical schools teach.

During the subsequent Howard era and his attempt to push the debate to where he thought it should be, a lot of focus was given to the concept of an apology. Howard refused to say sorry - and it would have been an empty gesture if he had done it and didn’t mean it. During these campaigns I couldn’t help but think back to the speech that day at Redfern Park.

To me, it had contained the recognition that I needed: that the leader of our country saw a place in the Australian narrative for me and my community that was, at last, positive, forward-looking and inclusive.

Excerpts -Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Whitlam #

In June 1975, the Whitlam government enacted the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Queensland Discriminatory Laws Act.

The law put to purpose the power conferred upon the Commonwealth Parliament by the 1967 referendum, finally outlawing the discrimination my father and his father lived under since my grandfather was removed to the mission as a boy and to which I was subject [for] the first 10 years of my life.

Powers regulating residency on reserves without a permit, the power of reserve managers to enter private premises without the consent of the householder, legal representation and appeal from court decisions, the power of reserve managers to arbitrarily direct people to work, and the terms and conditions of employment, were now required to treat Aboriginal Queenslanders on the same footing as other Australians.

We were at last free from those discriminations that humiliated and degraded our people.

The companion to this enactment, which would form the architecture of indigenous human rights akin to the Civil Rights Act 1965 in the United States, was the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Racial Discrimination Act was again crucial in 1982 when a group of Murray Islanders led by Eddie Mabo claimed title under the common law to their traditional homelands in the Torres Strait. In 1985 Bjelke-Petersen sought to kill the Murray Islanders’ case by enacting a retrospective extinguishment of any such title. … If there were no Racial Discrimination Act that would have been the end of it. Land rights would have been dead, there would never have been a Mabo case in 1992, there would have been no Native Title Act under Prime Minister Keating in 1993.

Without this old man (Whitlam) the land and human rights of our people would never have seen the light of day.

The Whitlam government is the textbook case of reform trumping management.

The Whitlam program as laid out in the 1972 election platform consisted three objectives: to promote equality, to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land, and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.

It remains to mention the idea of promoting equality. My chances in this nation were a result of the Whitlam program. My grandparents and parents could never have imagined the doors that opened to me which were closed to them.

I share this consciousness with millions of my fellow Australians whose experiences speak in some way or another to the great power of distributed opportunity. I don’t know why someone with this old man’s upper middle class background could carry such a burning conviction that the barriers of class and race of the Australia of his upbringing and maturation should be torn down and replaced with the unapologetic principle of equality.

I can scarcely point to any white Australian political leader of his vintage and of generations following of whom it could be said without a shadow of doubt, he harboured not a bone of racial, ethnic or gender prejudice in his body.

Keven Rudd apologises for us all: