Last Sunday it was exactly 25 years since the former Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a momentous speech at Redfern Park in 1992 to launch the United Nations International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
It became known as the Redfern Address and it was the first public acknowledgement by the Australian government of the dispossession of the first Australians.
Redfern Park has been significant to Sydney’s Aboriginal people as a sporting and community venue since the 19th century, and in 1992 Redfern had been the symbolic heart of Aboriginal Sydney’s culture and activism, resistance and self-determination for decades.
The speech was delivered at a pivotal time for the Indigenous rights movement in Australia, coming as it did a year after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was published and months after the historic Mabo decision recognising Native Title.
Possibly the most powerful part of Keating’s speech was this:
‘The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us, the non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with an 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 and 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 that these things could be 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 us all.’
Listening to the recording of the speech, you can hear the crowd cheering these words as Keating acknowledges the dispossession, violence and discrimination endured by Aboriginal people. These cheers continued as he spoke of the important contributions Indigenous Australians had made, and also for the need to reinterpret the past.
This need to reinterpret the past is still an ongoing debate today.
Keating’s speech was important both in terms of shining a light on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander injustices and as a key moment in the reconciliation movement, but not enough has changed in the 25 years since and we need to recognise the continuing inequality experienced by Indigenous people today. Incarceration rates is one area that continues to define this inequity, with Indigenous Australians being (where data is known) the most incarcerated people on the planet. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from 2015 to 2016 the Indigenous imprisonment rate (prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population) increased from 2,253 to 2,346, compared with 146 to 154 of the non-Indigenous population.(1,2)
It’s been 25 years and, as Keating said in his speech, ‘the past lives on in inequality, racism and injustice’.
- FactCheck Q&A: are Indigenous Australians the most incarcerated people on Earth?, Thalia Anthony, The Conversation, 6 June 2017
- Australian Bureau of Statistics: 4517.0 – Prisoners in Australia, 2016
Listen to Keating’s Redfern Speech in full on the Dictionary here or watch it on the National Film & Sound Archive’s Australian Screen Online here.
Redfern Park by Dr Catie Gilchrist, Dictionary of Sydney
Anon highlights missing link in a speech that promised so much by Natasha Robinson, The Australian, 8 December 2012
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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