This clip is in three parts:
Part 1: Keating answers this rhetorical question by outlining the abuses that have occurred since the time of colonisation to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia. He cites a failure of imagination on the part of settler colonial society to be able to imagine these things being 'done to us’. However, he asserts that guilt is not a productive emotion, that ‘what we need to do is to open our hearts … All of us’.
Part 2: In this section of his speech, Keating documents the remarkable contributions of the Indigenous people of Australia in history, sport, the arts, the armed services, in all areas of Australian life.
Part 3: This clip includes the ending of the speech. This is the section where Keating continues with his message of hope for significant change in Australian society. He outlines some of the changes that he can see already, such as a growing appreciation of the diversity and depth of cultures in Indigenous Australia, of the richness of our national life and identity with the participation of Indigenous people, their music, art and dance.
The genius and resilience of people who have survived many thousands of years, including cataclysmic changes, for example, helps us to learn to live with our environment. He references, importantly, ‘the wisdom contained in their epic story’ and how much colonial settlers have lost through living apart.
Summary by Vicki Grieves
This clip is in three parts
Part 1: This is a profound observation from a non-Aboriginal Australian at that time. To ask where the problem begins and then to answer this with an admission that it 'starts with us, the non-Aboriginal Australians’. This is distinctly different to the colonial settler summation of the ‘Aboriginal problem’, far removed from the cries of ‘hopeless’, ‘primitive’, and ‘unable to cope with modernity’ that have been trotted out to explain Aboriginal disadvantage.
Here Keating concentrates on the original dispossession, the murders, the removal of children as well as discrimination, exclusion, ignorance and prejudice. In this segment Keating highlights the failure of white Australians: 'We failed to ask, “How would I feel if this was done to me?”’
Part 2: In this section of his speech Keating shifts from the placing of blame on the settler colonial project to the recognition of Indigenous achievement against the odds, in every facet of social life in Australia and that 'we should never forget they have helped us build this nation’. He then shows a way out, the resilience and capability of Australian social democracy to bring about significant change and its fundamental belief in justice.
The first section is extremely powerful as he calls on the audience to imagine the suffering and adversity of Indigenous people, to imagine that it was somehow placed on them, that they had to endure the extent of it, as he details it, how would they feel?
He introduces the notion of justice and he calls on the citizenry to imagine if they were denigrated in the many ways that the Indigenous people have been (he comprehensively outlines these), then ‘imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it’.
He then brings a ray of hope, the fundamental belief in justice in the Australian democratic system and the capacity of the people to turn the goals of reconciliation into reality.
Part 3: While admitting the outrages of the colonial takeover and the ongoing suffering of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Keating underlines the value of the uniquely Australian democratic system. He defines this as interested in justice and in a sense he is suggesting that ‘all of us’ take the step of reconciling with the Indigenous people just that one step further.
He outlines here that the basis of this reconciliation is already laid, that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ contribution to the life of the nation is widely appreciated. Now he asks, imagine success in the acceptance and incorporation of these people into the whole of the fabric of the nation.
On 10 December 1992, at the official opening of the United Nations International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in Redfern Park New South Wales, the then Prime Minister the Honourable Paul J Keating made a landmark speech which influenced the relationship between the Australian state and the original Indigenous people and their descendents.
In the speech Keating challenges the established views of history held by many settler colonial Australians by outlining the outrages committed against Australia’s Indigenous peoples in the course of colonial takeover of their country. He called upon the Australian people to imagine if these outrages had happened to us – how would we feel?
He also praised the significant contribution that Indigenous people have made to the development of the nation and the cultural and social life of Australia. Finally, he underlines the Australian democratic passion for justice and he proposes a way forward for the decade.
Often referred to as Keating’s ‘Redfern Park Speech’ or the ‘Redfern Address’, it was given to a largely Aboriginal audience who were visibly and deeply moved by his words. This speech is notable for the tangible and passionate acceptance of responsibility for Aboriginal loss, devastation and trauma. The hardest hitting and most important part of his speech is when he puts the question ‘Imagine if it were us…?’
This is an ambitious and brave speech delivered at a time when there was significant division in Australian society around issues to do with Indigenous rights and justice for a colonised people. The rights of an Indigenous minority are not popular political debating points or the kind of policy development that is likely to win significant votes.
It is a speech that shows true leadership, that indicates a deep intellect and a highly moral and principled stand on very difficult issues. A speech that expresses sentiments with as much relevance today as in 1972, the beginning of the United Nations Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Any notable landmark speech has an aftermath and the backlash that occurred after this one would plunge Australian politics and society into a time of deep division over the importance of human rights generally and the interpretation of Australia’s colonial history specifically. This speech outed the politics of history in Australian society and arguably heralded the History Wars – the debates we had to have, perhaps?
It is widely understood that Keating’s assertion of the collective responsibility of the present generations for the outrages of the past incensed many Australians, including the leader of the opposition at that time, John Howard. Keating’s aim was to shift the locus of Australian identity away from a British-centred past to a history grounded in the Australian experience, revitalising the movement toward an Australian republic that had cut all ties with Britain.
Paul John Keating (1944–), the 24th Prime Minister of Australia from 1991–96, was perhaps a most unlikely politician to demonstrate leadership in admitting the devastation that the colonial conquest has wrought on Australia’s Indigenous people. From a highly urban, working-class family in suburban Bankstown in the Sydney metropolitan area, his parliamentary career was marked by aggressive debate and hard-nosed policy development. When Treasurer and the driving force behind the micro-economic reforms of the Hawke Labor government (1983–91) in particular, he was arguably responsible for the 1990s recession that 'we had to have’, as he notoriously referred to it. He had also introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992 and so was not notable for human rights concerns in his political career to date.
However, by 1992 he had enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with various Indigenous people on the national stage following the success of the Mabo v Queensland (1992) case that necessitated the development of the Native Title Act 1993 in the federal parliament. He had also employed a notable historian as his speechwriter, Don Watson, who chronicled these years in a multiple prize-winning book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002). He had also witnessed the recalcitrant prejudice and racism of many of the Australian people, the media and indeed members of Parliament, that erupted around the Mabo debates.
Whatever the possible influences on his stand, this speech, given on the occasion of the launch of the United Nations International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in Redfern Park, is an extraordinary, landmark speech in the changing relationship of the Australian state to its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Notes by Vicki Grieves