Transcript: Prime Minister Paul Keating's Redfern speech

Video length: 16 minutes, 56 seconds

Speaker: Prime Minister Paul Keating

Sol, the Mayor of South Sydney, Vic Smith, my ministerial colleague Robert Ticknor, the leader of the Opposition and his deputy, Bob Carr and Andrew Refshauge, distinguished members of Parliament, guests, ladies and gentlemen. Well I’m very pleased to be here today at the launch of Australia’s celebration of the 1993 International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It will be a year of great significance for Australia. It comes at a time when we’ve committed ourselves to succeeding in the test which so far we’ve always failed. Because in truth, we can not confidently say that we’ve succeeded if we’ve not managed to extend opportunity and care, dignity and hope to the Indigenous people of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will. Our ability to say to ourselves and to the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy. That we are what we should be, truly the land of a fair-go and the better chance. There is no more basic test, I think, of how seriously we mean these things. It’s in test of our self knowledge, of how well we know the land we live in, how well we know our history. How well we recognize the fact that complex as our contemporary identity is, it cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia. How well we know what Aboriginal Australians know about Australia. Redfern is a good place to contemplate these things as Sol said a few moments ago, just a mile or two from this place, where the first European settlers landed, in too many ways it tells us, that the failure to bring much more than devastation and demoralization to Aboriginal Australia continues to be our failure.

More I think than most, Australians recognize, the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all. In Redfern it might be tempting to think that the reality Aboriginal Australians face is somehow contained here and that the rest of us are insulated from it. But of course while all the dilemmas may exist here, as we all know, they’re far from contained. We know the same dilemmas and more are faced all over Australia. That is perhaps the point of this year, of the world’s Indigenous people. To bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognize that they are part of us. That we cannot give Indigenous Australians up without giving up many of our own deeply held values, much of our identity and indeed our own humanity. Nowhere in the world, I would venture, is the message more stark than Australia. We cannot simply sweep injustice aside. Even if our own conscience allowed us to, I’m sure that in due course, the world and the people of our region would not. There should be no mistake about this, our success in resolving these issues will have a significant bearing on our standing in the world and Sol mentioned this morning, that Lois O’Donahue will be speaking an historic speech at the United Nation’s making this very point.

But however intractable a problem seem(s), we can’t resign ourselves to failure any more than we can hide behind our opponent’s, our political opponent’s version of social Darwinism that says, to reach back for the poor and dispossessed is to risk being dragged down. It seems to me, not only morally indefensible, but bad history. We non-Aboriginal Australians should perhaps remind ourselves that Australia once reached out for us, didn’t Australia once provide care for the dispossessed Irish? Did it not for the poor of Britain? The refugees from war and famine and persecution of the countries of Europe and Asia. If it isn’t reasonable to say that if we can build a prosperous, remarkable, harmonious, multicultural society in Australia, surely we can find just solutions to the problems which beset the first Australians, the people to whom the most injustice has been done. And as I say, the starting point, might be to recognize 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 practiced 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’ve failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We’ve failed to ask, ‘how would I feel if this was done to me?’ As a consequence, we’ve failed to see that what we were doing degraded us all. If we need a reminder of this we’ve received it in this year, with the report of the Royal Commission to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which showed with devastating clarity, that the past lives on in inequality, racism and injustice. In the prejudice and ignorance of non-Aboriginal Australians and in the demoralization and desperation, the fractured identity of so many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

For all this, I do not believe the report should fill us with guilt. Down the year there’s been no shortage of guilt but it has not produced the response we need. Guilt, I think we’ve all learned, is not a very constructive emotion. I think what we need to do, is to open our hearts a bit. All of us. Perhaps when we recognize what we have in common, we will see the things which must be done. The practical things. There’s something of this in the creation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconstruction. The Council’s mission is to forge a new partnership built on justice and equity and an appreciation of the heritage of Australia’s Indigenous people. In the abstract, those terms are meaningless. We have to give meaning to justice and equity and as I’ve said several times this year, we will only give them meaning when we commit ourselves to achieving concrete results. If we improve the living conditions in once town, they will improve in another and other. If we raise the standard of health by 20% one year, it will be raised more the next. If we open one door, others will follow. When we see improvement, we will see more dignity, more confidence, more happiness, we will know we’re going to win. We will need these practical building blocks of change.

As Sol said, 'the Mabo judgements should be seen as one of these,' by doing away with the bizarre concept that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans. Mabo establishes a fundamental truth and lays the basis for justice. It’ll be much easier to work from that basis than it’s ever been for many case(s) in the past. For that reason alone, we should ignore the isolated outbreaks of hysteria and hostility to Mabo that we’ve heard in the last few months. Mabo is an historic decision, we can make it an historic turning point. The basis of a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians. The message should be that there’s nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth or the extension of social justice or the deepening of Australia’s social democracy to include Indigenous Australians. In fact, as all of us I think here know, there’s everything to gain. Even the unhappy past speaks to this. Where Aboriginal Australians have been included in the life of Australia, they have made remarkable contributions. Economic contributions, particularly in the pastoral and agricultural industry. They are there on the frontier and exploration history of Australia. They were there in the wars, in sport to an extraordinary degree, in literature and art and music. In all these things they’ve shaped our knowledge of this continent and ourselves. They shaped our identity. They are there in the Australian legend and we should never forget, they helped us build this nation. And if we have a sense of justice, as well as common sense, we will forge a new partnership. As I said, it might help if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of land we had lived on for 50,000 years and then imagined ourselves told that it had never been ours. Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land and then were told in history books that we’d given up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on the sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed. Imagine if we had suffered injustice and then were blind for it. It seems to me, if we can imagine the injustice, we can imagine the opposite and we can have justice. I say we can have justice for 2 reasons. I say it because I believe the great things about Australian social democracy reflect a fundamental belief in justice. And I say it because in so many other areas we have proved our capacity over the years, to go on extending the realms of participation, opportunity and care. Just as Australians living in the relatively narrow and insular Australia of the 1960s, imagine the culture and diverse, worldly and open Australia and in a generation turned this in to a reality so we can turn the goals of reconciliation in to a reality.

There are very good signs that the process has begun. The creation of the Reconciliation Council is evidence of this. The establishment of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, is also evidence. The Council is indeed the product of imagination and goodwill. ATSIC emerges from the vision of Indigenous self determination and self management. The vision’s already become the reality of almost 800 elected Aboriginal regional councilors and commissioners, determining priorities and developing their own programs. All over Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are taking charge of their own lives and assistance with the problems that chronically beset them, is at last being made available by ways devised by the communities themselves. If these things offer hope, so does the fact that this generation of Australians is better informed about Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal achievement and about the injustice that has been done and that any generation before it has so been aware. So we are beginning to more generally appreciate the depth and the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. From their music and art and dance, we’re beginning to realize how much richer our life and national identity will be for the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We’re beginning to learn that the Indigenous people have known for many thousands of years how to live with our physical environment. Very gradually, we’re learning to see Australia through Aboriginal eyes, beginning to recognize the wisdom in their epic stories. I think we’re beginning to see how much we owe the Indigenous Australians and how much we’ve lost by living so apart.

I said we non-Indigenous Australians should try to imagine the Aboriginal view. It can’t be too hard. Someone imagined this event today and it’s now a reality and a great reason for hope. But there’s one thing today we cannot imagine. We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here for 50,000 years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and the environment and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nations. We can’t imagine that. We cannot imagine that we’ll fail and with the spirit that’s here today, I’m confident that we won’t fail. I’m confident that we will succeed in this decade. Thank you very much for listening to me.