Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech and its rhetorical legacy

What sort of entailments do we inherit from our ancestors? What are we responsible for or not? Keating’s speech from 1992 takes a strong position on the questions of race in Australia.

And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

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 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 us all.

As he did so, Keating named the parties to Aboriginal reconciliation in a way that has characterised the grammar of non-Indigenous discussions of the topic – by supporters, sceptics and apathetic citizens alike – ever since: (i) a ‘we’ or ‘us’ incorporating all non-Indigenous citizens, no matter how recent or ancient their family histories of immigration and (ii) a ‘they’ or ‘them’ incorporating all Indigenous Australians. In public discourse ever since, to switch pronouns and their entailments – that is, to speak outside of this frame of reference – effectively signals a move away from discussing reconciliation.

Along with colleagues Melissa Walsh and Ravi de Costa, I have been researching this highly specific paradigm for several years now. We find that, for all the usual apprehensions about us-and-them scenarios, it is a model that assumes ‘we’ have something to work through with ‘them’ – there is, in other words, business to conduct between the parties. To bridge such a divide requires acknowledging it in the first place. But the significance of this particular moment was that, in Australia at least, it defined the constitution of the ‘us’ camp and the ‘them’ camp in ways that have survived all the innocent and wilful obstructions to reconciliation that successive governments have since instituted.

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed 7 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.