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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1992 - The Redfern Park Speech
by Tom Griffiths
Paul Keating at Redfern Park (photo by John Paoloni).

O n 10 December 1992, the prime minister, the Hon. Paul Keating, addressed a two thousand–strong crowd of mostly Indigenous Australians gathered outdoors at Redfern Park in Sydney for the launch of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. Few foresaw the immediate impact and enduring significance of the speech he was to deliver that day. Children played, schoolkids huddled, and families basked in the sun. The prime minister was introduced by Bundjalung man Sol Bellear AO, deputy chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Then Matthew Doyle, a descendant of the Muruwari people of the Lightning Ridge area, stepped forward in body paint to play the yidaki. While Keating waited, Doyle decided to play the traditional song twice, reckoning that ‘nah, I’m gonna make him wait.’ After his performance, Doyle decided to stand with his instrument behind the prime minister as he spoke, alongside Bellear and the MC, Wiradjuri man, journalist Stan Grant.

As Keating began his speech, there was a gentle hubbub in the crowd, a few catcalls from the back and an occasional boo and jeer. But then the prime minister uttered these words:

the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with that 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 diseases. 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.

The crowd fell into attentive silence; there were murmurs, some shouts of approval, even applause. These things had not been said before by a prime minister.

The Redfern Park speech was the first time a prime minister directly acknowledged the dispossession, violence, and discrimination perpetrated against Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Keating saw his speech—delivered in the urban centre of Aboriginal culture and activism—as an historic opportunity for his government to ‘own’ the Mabo judgement of the High Court of Australia, handed down six months earlier. Although soon to face a Federal election he was widely predicted to lose, Keating chose to invest his political capital in speaking of Indigenous suffering and dispossession because, as he later reflected, ‘the country needed the cleansing.’

‘The speech,’ observed its author, the prime minister’s speechwriter Don Watson, ‘was made to a black audience but its core was an appeal to white Australians.’ Watson knew that Redfern ‘is not a place to dissemble about Aboriginal Australia.’ Eualeyai/Gamillaroi woman Larissa Behrendt, who had just graduated in law, was in the audience that day and recalled her surprise that a prime minister would walk into such a gathering: ‘This was not a community who could be politely curated. If you were coming to address them, you had better mean it.’ Staff in the prime minister’s office did not see the speech before it was delivered, and probably would have amended it if they had. Keating read the speech over breakfast and endorsed every word.

People in the audience felt relief, even hope. Indigenous leaders from around the country phoned the prime minister’s office saying: ‘It was a good start.’ Sol Bellear recalled how ‘the speech … just erupted’. On the thirtieth anniversary of the occasion, Stan Grant reflected that ‘you don’t need long to tell the truth … But it had taken two centuries to say.’ Behrendt admitted that she ‘felt like those words were said directly to me—acknowledging the silences that I had felt excluded by. It left me naively optimistic. The conversation was changing. The tide was turning. I could not foresee the backlash that would follow.’


left arrow 1992: Mabo v. Queensland
2000: Walk Across the Bridge right arrow