Next Monday, 10 December 2012, marks 20 years since Paul Keating, then Prime Minister of Australia, went down to Redfern Park to launch the Australian celebration of the International Year of World Indigenous People.

He made a speech that day that was to have a profound influence on Australian public life.

At the time, Australia was coming to terms with a number of issues concerning Aboriginal relations.  The Mabo decision in the High Court in June 1992 had formally acknowledged that Australia was not terra nullius, or a land belonging to no-one, when Europeans arrived in 1788 and that Native Title could be upheld over parts of the continent.   Soon after, the report of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody shook the political landscape to the core and shamed Australian society.

For Aboriginal people, these two events marked the beginning of new recognition for their continuing place in Australia’s history and culture.  However for some sections of the Australian community, the decisions were seen as disastrous and the end of certainty.

Right wing commentator’s on Mabo predicted that Aboriginal groups would be making land claims on suburban backyards and that no-one was safe.  Of course this didn’t happen.

However, in December when Keating went down to Redfern this was the flavour of much of the debate.

Keating’s speech started simply enough.

It sounded like a fairly broad and typical response to the upcoming year and the test awaiting Australia responding to it.

The crowd, while polite, were also offering its own opinion on the content through catcalls and interjections.

Then about 6 mins in, the speech began to shift into something more powerful.  Keating began to talk of what Australia had done for others who wished to come, how it had built a harmonious, welcoming multicultural society.  And yet when it came to the first Australians, we seemed to be constantly stumbling.

He pondered that perhaps the way forward could come through recognition.

And this is where the whole thing takes off, because his recognition is not the same old recognition of problems in the Aboriginal community, but rather recognition that those problems stem from the actions of non-Aboriginal Australians: The violence brought on the community by the frontier wars, the dispossession of people from their native lands, the taking of children from their mothers, the introduction of disease and alcohol.  These were the products of European settlement and were made worse through two centuries of racist discrimination and mistreatment.

Paul Keating in Redfern Park after his speech, 10 December 1992
Paul Keating in Redfern Park after his speech, 10 December 1992

These are powerful words made more so because they were coming from the Prime Minister.  No Prime Minister of Australia, and few other politicians, had ever given such a speech in public or even in the Parliament.  Check it out here.

The speech has grown in stature over the years.  It can be taken as the starting point for a new discourse in Australian politics about the Aboriginal past and responsibility.  Were non-Aboriginal Australians of today responsible for actions past?  Was there a need for a national apology? Was Australian history being hijacked by “black armband” historians, painting a darker and more sinister past then was true?  These were all raging and highly charged questions and debates that came from it, especially with the defeat of the Keating Labor government just a few years later.

But the speech remained strong.  In 2007 it was voted the third most popular and influential speech in history by and ABC poll and was studied as part of the history curriculum in senior schools.  It also laid the groundwork for another major Australian acknowledgement of the wrongs bought on Aboriginal people-Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008.

Words can be powerful tools.

As part of the anniversary this weekend a number of events are taking place.  On Saturday at Damien Minton Gallery in Redfern, Eddie Mabo’s daughter will be reading the speech in full with an accompanying art exhibition, while on Monday at the Customs House library at Circular Quay, City of Sydney library has a photographic exhibition of the day of the speech as well as screenings of the speech throughout the day.

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