Memories of Redfern
In a recent Wheeler Centre event celebrating great speeches, a variety of guests read their favourite orations. Actor Noni Hazlehurst read the Redfern speech, a speech delivered by former PM Paul Keating in Redfern Park on 10 December, 1992. The speech didn’t receive much media attention at the time, but it has gone down in history as one of the great Australian political speeches. It came in at number three in a 2007 poll of favourite speeches among listeners of ABC Radio National, behind only Martin Luther King’s 1968 ‘I have a dream’ speech and Jesus' sermon on the mount. Here’s edited footage and here’s a transcript.
In his classic political memoir, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Keating’s speechwriter Don Watson provides background on the event. At the beginning of the speech, he writes, “there were intermittent catcalls from the back” from disgruntled indigenous locals. The catcalls stopped when Keating began to speak about “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 diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers…”
“The first principle of the Redfern speech,” Watson notes, “was that the problem could only be solved by an act of imagination. The country had to acknowledge certain notorious facts - indisputable facts, not hedged about with doubts and qualifications, nor as elements of a partisan agenda. There was no hope of a useful debate if the truth was not acknowledged and consequences of it imagined. The consequences were trauma, alienation, anger, despair, suicide…”
Inevitably, there was a backlash to the speech. “The problematic word was ‘we’. From ‘we’ the inference has been drawn that the present generation of Australians is responsible for the actions of previous generations. This was not intended.”
As a result of the publication of Recollections, Paul Keating and Don Watson - “the puppet master for the highest puppet in the land”, in Keating’s words - are no longer on speaking terms. It’s a rift that journalist Michael Gordon, in a Saturday Age feature, calls “one of the most enduring, unexpected fallings-out in modern Australian political history.”