Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

The Redfern Speech at 20. Turning point or high water mark?

redfern-addressThe Redfern speech is one of the most controversial and important speeches in Australian history. A landmark, it was the first time a Prime Minister spoke about the injustices done to indigenous Australians, and the first time  a leader took responsibility.  The speech ‘shows true leadership, indicates a deep intellect and took a moral and principled stand on very difficult issue’. December 10th was its 2oth anniversary, and opinion remains mixed.

The words are well-known but bear repetition:

“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.”

“When Paul Keating spoke at Redfern…he did so as the 24th prime minister of Australia. As such, he carried the mantle of that office, and spoke for it” writes  Noel Pearson. “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”….

Law professor Larissa Behrendt, who was there, recalls “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.”….We weren’t ”us” and ”them”. Our fates were tied together. We ALL needed to open our hearts a little.” 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.’

Keating  himself has written  that  “a national leader should always be searching for the threads of gold in a community, nurturing and bringing them out and focusing on the best instincts – running with the human spirit and not punishing it”.

The speech is widely regarded as a game changer.  It put reconciliation on the  political agenda, sparked practical steps like native title legislation, the establishment a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, it triggered community support – the Sea of Hands,  Bridgewalks and Australia Day ceremonies, and began the long toad to the 2007 formal apology to indigenous Australians.  Whether those gains have been secured remains moot.

Keating’s speechwriter Don Watson, (who famously fought with him abut the true authorship of the speech) says  “Redfern fixed nothing of a practical kind then and it hasn’t fixed anything since, and if governments are as mealy-mouthed and bureaucracies as incompetent and corrupt in the next 20 years as they’ve been in the last 20, maybe no one will want to own it.”,

Paul Kelly writes “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…..The reason Keating’s speech is admired today is because he transcended the tyranny of the moment. …He asked non-Aboriginal Australians to admit the problem started with them. It was confronting and contestable. Redfern revealed that leadership is a solitary project to move opinions and has unpredictable consequences. It requires bravery and persuasion. Keating had the bravery but persuading the nation was a long-run exercise that outlived his time in power”.

In 2007 Keating’s speech was voted by 5000+ ABC radio listeners the most unforgettable in Australian history.  It’s listed in the ABC’s 80 days that changed our lives, and featured in the National Film and Sound Archive.

Transcript and links to audio and vido files are here: http://treatyrepublic.net/node/388

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