The Redfern Park Speech

The Redfern Park Speech, 10 December 1992. Footage courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.

The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians. There is everything to gain.

Today marks twenty-one years since Prime Minister Paul Keating gave the Redfern Park Speech. Delivered at the Launch of the 1993 Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the seventeen minute speech explicitly addressed the challenges faced by Australia’s Indigenous population, and acknowledged the destructive nature of European settlement on Australia’s Indigenous communities.

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.

In the history of Australian Prime Ministerial rhetoric – and, indeed, of political rhetoric more broadly – the Redfern Park Speech stands almost unopposed as one of the country’s most remarkable moments. In 2007, listeners of the ABC’s Radio National voted Keating’s address as the third most memorable piece of political rhetoric. (The top two places in that list were, perhaps unsurprisingly, taken by the Sermon on the Mount, and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream.’) The crowd, predominately Indigenous, provided a soundtrack of the speech’s immediate reception. From a jeering hostility, the crowd fell silent, and then – as Keating began his mea culpa on behalf of Anglo Australia – began to cheer.

In all these things they have shaped our knowledge of this continent and of ourselves. They have shaped our identity. They are there in the Australian legend. We should never forget – they helped build this nation. And if we have a sense of justice, as well as common sense, we will forge a new partnership.

Further reading and viewing

Transcript of the Redfern Speech (Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples)

Interview with Paul Keating, Keating: The Interview (Part Four), ABC TV, 3 December 2013 (discusses the historical context of the Redfern Speech, from 26:30)

ABC Online, ’80 Days That Changed Our Lives: Paul Keating’s Redfern Address’

Reconciliation Australia’s ‘Statement by the Co-Chairs of Reconciliation Australia commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Redfern speech’, 10 December 2012

Larissa Behrendt, ‘Sadly, the Redfern Speech is still the high-water mark for inclusion,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 10 December 2012

Natasha Robinson, ‘Redfern speech promised much, delivered little,’ The Australian, 10 December 2012

– Rebecca Hawkings

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