“We brought the disasters”
The Australian prime minister’s “Redfern
Speech” on indigenous issues, Redfern Park,
Sydney, 10 December 1992.
The character “Sir Les Patterson”, one of the memorable comic creations of the great Australian satirist Barry Humphries once declared to his audiences: “I am not an orator - I’m an Australian politician.” Bearing the title of Minister for Inland Drainage and Rodent Control, “Sir Les” was perhaps a lower-flying minister, until his transfer to London to spearhead Australia’s “fine arts task-force” in Europe.
Though spoken through a comic creation, the words of Humphries, like many uttered by comedians, rang with truth. Australian politicians may be renowned for pork-barrelling, rorting their expenses and toadying up to foreign leaders - but few are known for oratory.
While former prime minister Gough Whitlam had the bearing of an orator, and current incumbent Kevin Rudd has made important statements to the nation - none more so than his Apology to Australia’s indigenous people for the “Stolen Generations”, the speech best remembered as a landmark is the “Redfern Speech” of Paul Keating.
Though formidable with barbs and witticisms in Parliament, Paul Keating (1944-) was not widely thought of an orator until the day he stood up in a park in inner-city Redfern, a suburb many urban indigenous people have long made their home in Sydney, to launch the 1993 International Year for the World's Indigenous People. The speech he gave was characterised by rare vision, honesty and candour.
Keating grew up in the working class Sydney suburb of Bankstown, worked as a council clerk and tried his hand at managing a rock band before gaining Australian Labor Party preselection for Federal Parliament at the 1969 Federal election, when he was only 25. After Bob Hawke defeated Malcolm Fraser’s conservative Coalition in 1983, Keating became Federal Treasurer, and then Prime Minister in 1991.
His speech touches in part on the Royal Commission into the deaths of indigenous prisoners in prison and police holding cells, and on the Mabo Judgement of 3 June 1992, when the High Court dismissed the notion of “terra nullius”, that is that Australia had belonged to no-one before the arrival of Europeans. The case brought by indigenous man Eddie Mabo - who sadly did not live to see it succeed - was a watershed in Australian law, opening the way for claims for Native Title to Crown land.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am very pleased to be here today at the launch of Australia's celebration of the 1993 International Year of the World's Indigenous People. It will be a year of great significance for Australia. It comes at a time when we have committed ourselves to succeeding in the test which so far we have always failed.
Because, in truth, we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia - the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be - truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.
There is no more basic test of how seriously we mean these things. It is a test of our self-knowledge. Of how well we know the land we live in. How well we know our history. How well we recognise the fact that, complex as our contemporary identity is, it cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia. How well we know what Aboriginal Australians know about Australia.
Redfern is a good place to contemplate these things. Just a mile or two from the place where the first European settlers landed, in too many ways it tells us that their failure to bring much more than devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia continues to be our failure.
More I think than most Australians recognise, the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all. In Redfern it might be tempting to think that the reality Aboriginal Australians face is somehow contained here, and that the rest of us are insulated from it. But of course, while all the dilemmas may exist here, they are far from contained. We know the same dilemmas and more are faced all over Australia.
This is perhaps the point of this Year of the World's Indigenous People: to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us, and that we cannot give indigenous Australians up without giving up many of our own most deeply held values, much of our own identity - and our own humanity. Nowhere in the world, I would venture, is the message more stark than in Australia.
We simply cannot sweep injustice aside. Even if our own conscience allowed us to, I am sure, that in due course, the world and the people of our region would not. There should be no mistake about this - our success in resolving these issues will have a significant bearing on our standing in the world.
However intractable the problems may seem, we cannot resign ourselves to failure - any more than we can hide behind the contemporary version of Social Darwinism which says that to reach back for the poor and dispossessed is to risk being dragged down.
That seems to me not only morally indefensible, but bad history. We non-Aboriginal Australians should perhaps remind ourselves that Australia once reached out for us. Didn't Australia provide opportunity and care for the dispossessed Irish? The poor of Britain? The refugees from war and famine and persecution in the countries of Europe and Asia? Isn't it reasonable to say that if we can build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society in Australia, surely we can find just solutions to the problems which beset the first Australians - the people to whom the most injustice has been done.
And, as I say, 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. If we needed a reminder of this, we received it this year. The Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody showed with devastating clarity that the past lives on in inequality, racism and injustice in the prejudice and ignorance of non-Aboriginal Australians, and in the demoralisation and desperation, the fractured identity, of so many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
For all this, I do not believe that the Report should fill us with guilt. 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.
Perhaps when we recognise what we have in common we will see the things which must be done - the practical things. There is something of this in the creation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. The council's mission is to forge a new partnership built on justice and equity and an appreciation of the heritage of Australia's indigenous people. In the abstract those terms are meaningless. We have to give meaning to “justice” and “equity” - and, as I have said several times this year, we will only give them meaning when we commit ourselves to achieving concrete results.
If we improve the living conditions in one town, they will improve in another. And another. If we raise the standard of health by 20 per cent one year, it will be raised more the next. if we open one door others will follow.
When we see improvement, when we see more dignity, more confidence, more happiness - we will know we are going to win. We need these practical building blocks of change.
The Mabo judgement should be seen as one of these. By doing away with the bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans, Mabo establishes a fundamental truth and lays the basis for justice. It will be much easier to work from that basis than has ever been the case in the past.
For this reason alone we should ignore the isolated outbreaks of hysteria and hostility of the past few months. Mabo is an historic decision - we can make it an historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians.
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.
Even the unhappy past speaks for this. Where Aboriginal Australians have been included in the life of Australia they have made remarkable contributions. Economic contributions, particularly in the pastoral and agricultural industry. They are there in the frontier and exploration history of Australia. They are there in the ways. In sport ot an extraordinary degree. In literature and art and music.
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.
As I said, it might help us if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of land we have lived on for 50 000 years - and then imagined ourselves told that it had never been ours. Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.
Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it.
It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice then we can imagine its opposite. And we can have justice.I say that for two reasons: I say it because I believe that the great things about Australian social democracy reflect a fundamental belief in justice. And I say it because in so many other areas we have proved our capacity over the years to go on extending the realism of participating, opportunity and care.
Just as Australian living in the relatively narrow and insular Australia of the 1960s imagined a culturally diverse, worldly and open Australia, and in a generation turned the idea into reality, so we can turn the goals of reconciliation into reality...
Ever so gradually we are learning how to see Australia through Aboriginal eyes, beginning to recognise the wisdom contained in their epic story. I think we are beginning to see how much we owe the indigenous Australians and how much we have lost by living so apart.
I said we non-indigenous Australians should try to imagine the Aboriginal view. It can't be too hard. Someone imagined this event today, and it is now a marvellous reality and a great reason for hope.
There is one thing today we cannot imagine. We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through 50,000 years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nation.
We cannot imagine that.
We cannot imagine that we will fail.
And with the spirit that is here today I am confident that we won't.
I am confident that we will succeed in this decade. Thank you.’
The tide turned against Keating in the mid 1990s, and he was swept from office in the 1996 election, which handed power to conservative John Howard’s Coalition. It virtually ignored the plight of Australia’s indigenous people until it stage-managed an “intervention” by army and police in the Northern Territory in a last futile attempt to get re-elected in 2007.
Howard had consistently refused to give an Apology for the Stolen Generations, which his Labour successor Kevin Rudd ensured occurred in the first weeks of his government, on 13 February 2008 at a special sitting of Federal Parliament in Canberra.
Australians indigenous and non-indigenous were moved, many to tears, as he stated to Parliament, and the nation via the media:
‘For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for the families left behind, we are sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.’
*This edited version of Paul Keating's speech is from my book "Speeches of War and Peace", the Concise edition of which has just been released by New Holland Publishers
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