Paul Keating’s Redfern speech changed the national conversation — for a moment

Home Arts Paul Keating’s Redfern speech changed the national conversation — for a moment
Paul Keating’s Redfern speech changed the national conversation — for a moment

Few speeches delivered by an Australian prime minister go down in history.

WARNING: This story contains the images and names of Indigenous people who have died.

Despite honing their debating skills at elite private schools and sandstone universities, few have possessed the rhetorical genius, not to mention the aid of a gifted speechwriter, to inspire us with their oratory — glib one-liners, gaffes and zingers aside.

Even fewer have managed, with their words alone, to create a vision for Australia’s future that we all might share.

Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, delivered to a sceptical if not hostile audience in the inner-Sydney suburb hailed “the black capital”, on December 10, 1992, is a rare exception.

So extraordinary was Mr Keating’s speech, Aboriginal kids from Redfern clamoured to get his autograph in the moments afterward.

Paul Keating signs autographs for Aboriginal children, surrounded by photographers.
Keating signs autographs for Aboriginal children after the speech.(Supplied: John Paoloni and City of Sydney Archives, A-00022322)

The vision Mr Keating put forward in his speech was one that confronted the spectre of the nation’s past, as he and his government wrestled with the High Court’s ground-shaking Mabo decision.

The judgement, handed down six months before Mr Keating addressed the gathering in Redfern Park, overturned the fictional legal doctrine of terra nullius: that before 1788, the continent of Australia was “land belonging to no-one”.

As he was drafting legislation to enact a system of native title in answer to the High Court decision, the way forward was predicated on what he called an “act of recognition”.

In an extraordinary moment of truth telling, punctuated by heckles and then eventually applause, Mr Keating, on behalf of the nation state, went on to admit moral responsibility for a litany of crimes against Australia’s Indigenous people.

An unexpected impact

As he dispensed the indisputable truth, Mr Keating barely looked up from his notes.

“It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life,” he intoned in his grave, humourless way.

“We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.”

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