Speak for Yourself

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

Words that changed history: The Redfern Speech turns 20

“The Redfern speech is one of the most controversial and important speeches in Australian history”, said Dennis Glover in The Australian in 2010.  It’s listed in the ABC’s 80 days that changed our lives, and in the National Film and Sound Archive. It sparked a notorious squabble between former Prime Minister Paul Keating and his speechwriter Don Watson about its authorship.

December 10th was the 2oth anniversary. PM  Keating made ‘the Redfern Speech’ to launch Australia’s program for the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1992. It was six months after  Mabo, a  decision that provoked  a schism in politics and society.  The declaration that  native title had survived European settlement, combined with the publication of information about the stolen generations, provided  the background.  Keating’s speech brandished the Government’s stance on Indigenous issues, and it polarised people.

The speech is widely studied, and it deserves to be.

What makes it so famous?

It was the first time an Australian Prime Minister spoke about the injustices done to indigenous Australians. He admitted guilt. What he said was not popular, was not expected, but gave voice to a sentiment felt by many, but officially expressed by few.

“The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.  We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. 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.”

In the twenty years since Redfern we’ve seen the emergence of a different model of Australian ‘leader-speak’.  Prime Minister John Howard  was master of talk-back and preferred to speak off the cuff. Kevin Rudd always sounded like a DIY orator, and Julia Gillard is one of those speakers that people love to hate. Speeches by all these leaders have been serviceable at best. Even Keating’s real brilliance was not  on the podium,  but unprepared, in the cut and thrust of  the Parliament.

What does this say about Australian political speeches? A decade after Redfern,  Margaret Simons lamented in the Sydney Morning Herald that “the art of oratory is dead, killed off by the sound bite”.  Writing in The Age last  year John Huxley said “The information revolution has multiplied the sources of political messages, and empowered attention-challenged, time-poor, twittering audiences… speechwriters could become extinct. And with them oratory”.

Simons: “We hunger for speeches in the same way as we hunger for music – because, at their best, speeches have the same ability as music to lift us out of the pedestrian and give meaning to everyday actions. Like good music, good speeches engage the mind and the emotions”.

She quoted the legendary Reagan/Bush speechwriter, Peggy Noonan (who gave us  “a kinder, gentler nation” and “Read my lips: no new taxes” ), who says a speech  is a politician’s  opportunity “to speak unfiltered, uncut and uninterrupted”. Australian Lucinda Holdforth, principal speech-writer for Kim Beazley when he was deputy prime minister, is quoted as saying “You control the time, the space and the moment. You have an unobstructed opportunity to tell your story in a way that is best suited to your needs.”

Has the sound-bite put the long form speech to death? Or has it done the opposite, given it new life?

In The Age  on September 4th 2003 Paul Keating wrote 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”.  That’s what  the Redfern speech did, that’s what a leader’s speech does best.

I’m with Simons: “We still yearn for those great speeches…if only someone would deliver them”.

Use the Comments to let me know your thoughts.


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This entry was posted on 03/06/2012 by in Political speeches, Presenting a speech, Public speaking.

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