Redfern Speech 25th Anniversary

NSW Legislative Council 16 November 2017

The Hon. JOHN GRAHAM (23:38): It was a speech in a Sydney park—a rundown one at that. The audience was distracted—laughing, lounging or barely playing attention. Then the mood audibly shifted as the figure on stage, familiar from television, started speaking unfamiliar words. On 10 December it will be 25 years since that speech was made. The park was in Redfern, and the speech was one of our nation's greatest. The words that quieted the crowd were these:

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 their unfamiliarity that gave the words their power. An Australian Prime Minister had never talked about our history to the Australian people in the way that Paul Keating did that day, in those unvarnished terms. Keating said:

… the test which so far we have always failed. Because, in truth, we cannot confidently say that we have succeeded as we would like to have succeeded if we have not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the indigenous people of Australia …

Since that speech 25 years ago we have had a more honest national discussion. We have had the apology to the stolen generation. We have declared, in this place, our support for the speaking of Indigenous languages that were once banned—that people were once punished for learning. We have declared that we will close the gap. However, if we are honest, we have not yet met that test that Keating set. We have not closed the gap. We have not saved the languages, despite the urgency to do so while elders are dying. We have not cleared the jails; instead, we have filled them. We have not changed the Constitution to give a voice or recognition to Indigenous Australians. We have not yet been honest about the past.

It is on that last point that I want to recommend a remarkable project to the House. That is the online map being led by historian Professor Lyndall Ryan at the University of Newcastle. I met with her in Newcastle recently to discuss the project. This project is starting to catalogue and map each of the frontier conflicts or massacres that we know of on the east coast of Australia. It is not the first catalogue—although it may be the most comprehensive—but it is the first map. In the past we have been able to say what happened and when, but rarely where, other than in the vaguest of terms. Until now, we have had a history without geography. That is to say, it is the first time that this history of conflict with a people to whom the land was sacred, has been given a sense of place. I look forward to seeing how the project develops.

I also take this chance to call for Keating's speech—for the historical moment it represented—to be better recognised in Redfern Park. There is a fragment of the speech placed there. It is low key and leaf covered. It is possibly the most important fragment of the speech, but it does not convey some of the things in the speech. It does not convey the test that Keating sets for the nation. It does not convey his call for the practical building blocks of change. He said:

If we improve the living conditions in one town, they will improve in another. And another. If we raise the standard of health by twenty per cent one year, it will be raised more the next. If we open one door others will follow.

I call on the City of Sydney and the State to do more to mark this significant place, this significant moment and this significant speech in a more appropriate way.