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"We committed the murders. We took the children"

Paul Keating's Redfern speech is another year older. One of the best episodes of the podcast is with Don Watson, who wrote the speech. The two men no longer speak.

Yesterday was the 29th anniversary of Paul Keating’s Redfern speech. It was delivered in Redfern Park, for the launch of the International Year of Indigenous People. Many in the audience were indigenous, and it’s interesting to listen to the audio of the speech, to hear jeers and abuse for a man in power torn to cheers and applause as he says some things that hadn’t been publicly acknowledged before. This is the most famous section of the speech:

It begins, I think, with the 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 disasters. 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. 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 all of us.

It’s such direct language. We, we, we. It doesn’t seek to minimise or excuse. Keating says, ‘it begins with an act of recognition’, and then couldn’t be plainer in terms of delivering that recognition. I think they’re three of the most amazing paragraphs ever spoken by an Australian Prime Minister.

I had Paul Keating’s speech writer Don Watson on the podcast to talk about the Redfern speech back in 2020. He didn’t think it was a momentous speech when he wrote it:

“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. Fundamentally it was Australian history 1A. It was like a lecture I’d probably given a dozen times when I was an academic. And I stupidly, I didn’t see the significance of confessing to these crimes. But they’d been written about extensively. I’d written about them myself in a book about the Gippsland frontier. Henry Reynolds had written about it … a whole lot of people had written about what happened on the frontier, and that just went into the speech.

Paul Keating with Don Watson

Watson says he rarely attended the reading of speeches, and he didn’t go to Redfern that day. More surprisingly, he was unaware that the speech was breaking any sort of ground:

If you’d asked me, has any prime minister taken responsibility for what happened on the frontier, I wouldn’t have confidently had said ‘no’. I wasn’t sure what Gough said when he did the thing at Wattie Creek …

Over the last twenty years, Don Watson and Paul Keating have fallen out. Keating launched, but hated, Watson’s memoir of his time in the prime ministerial office called ‘Recollections of a Bleeding Heart’. ‘‘A bloody black box recorder’ is how Keating referred to its candid philosophical tone, that for mine sets it apart from any political memoir I’ve ever read.

Great for readers. Less great, perhaps, for subjects. This was an incredible episode of the podcast. This is how Watson remembered Paul Keating’s speech on the night the Recollections launched:

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Tony Wilson