Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech and its rhetorical legacy

The Redfern Park speech, delivered by Paul Keating on 10 December 1992, remains an especially brilliant oratorical moment, especially given the context in which it was performed. It managed to capture in explicit terms some harsh truths about Australian history, and to use them as a basis for building trust in the government’s motives among Indigenous Australians (although admittedly much of that trust has been squandered in subsequent history).

Of particular importance was the way the Redfern Park speech was able to fashion its most compelling narratives with very little sentimentalising or histrionic rhetoric. This is a reason why the speech has stayed so firmly in public memory, despite periods when the national mood was profoundly against it. The address was voted number three in a 2011 ABC Radio National poll of ‘the most unforgettable speech of all time’, ranked behind, first, Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ and, second, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. (A caveat on this poll: of the four Australian speeches listed in the top twenty, three were given by Labor Party politicians. I know from some close experience that such people have no particular monopoly on rhetorical flair.)

The Redfern Park speech provides an excellent vehicle for exploring the complex and often vexed relationship between four fundamental components of the contemporary scripted political speech: the speech performance, the speaker-persona, the performance manuscript and the speechwriter who drafts that manuscript. Between the page and the voice, between the moment of performance and its moment in history, the Redfern Park speech invokes a curiously empowering version of the ‘us-and-them’ narrative framework underpinning the Indigenous reconciliation project in Australia (as elsewhere). This frame of reference, the most fundamental paradigm in the grammar of Aboriginal reconciliation, remains ubiquitous in non-Indigenous discussions of this issue – even now, two decades later.

This article is thus an argument for the speech’s place at the head of a decades-long and ongoing phase in the history of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This historic period has been greatly animated by notions of ‘Aboriginal reconciliation’, most of which have gone unfulfilled in significant respects. In 1992, the concept was still new enough that a conspicuous speech could set down its basic terms.

One further remarkable aspect is the tension that arose between Keating and his advisor Don Watson – that is, between the performer of this speech and the speechwriter who drafted its manuscript. Reflecting on the dispute, particularly with reference to the manuscript itself, provides an opportunity to reflect not only on the speech, but also on the reason why there is something worth arguing over and why the speech has acquired such lasting resonance in a country that prefers to forget such things. What can the tension itself tell us about the nature of political speechmaking and about this speech in particular?


The speech performance

Before getting too analytical, it is worth considering some of the significant facts around the speech, both in terms of the historical situation in which it arose and the historical moment it designated. In June 1992, Australia’s High Court handed down the Mabo judgement, a landmark decision that found that people living across that continent before 1788 were indeed the occupiers of a land that previous generations had inhabited and worked for over 40 000 years. A received understanding of land title predicated on terra nullius was therefore overturned.

Keating’s speech, which marked the launch of Australia’s celebration of the coming International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, was mindful of the need that Mabo had occasioned for a new dispensation of Australia’s common wealth. At the same time, it was trying to give impetus to a national policy program of ‘Aboriginal reconciliation’.

Reconciliation is a key term, even for the many who distrust it, because it has set the frame for government efforts in Indigenous relations since it rose to prominence in the early 1990s. In a report for the Australian Parliamentary Library, Angela Pratt argues that it is a word that can have many different meanings and as many different uses. As Ravi de Costa has shown, this was exactly its point: in 1990, the Hawke Labor government – with Keating a member of the cabinet – determined that striking a retrospective treaty with Indigenous Australians was politically impossible, so it replaced all mentions and hopes of a treaty with this more nebulous phrase. In an illuminating comparison, South Africa, at essentially the same moment, also fixed on the word ‘reconciliation’ because its vagueness seemed helpful in overcoming the murderous legacy of state racism.

Keating preformed the Redfern Park speech just short of a year into his term as prime minister. Significantly, he chose to deliver the address in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern, which for decades had been the epicentre of Aboriginal (or, more specifically, Koori) culture in Australia’s largest city. Redfern’s Koori population has since been significantly displaced by successive NSW governments, each one keen to realise windfall taxes from housing stock so close to the city centre.

Keating’s audience was a particular mix of elements, and this may indeed be a pointer to the kind of Australian community the speech was seeking to invoke. There were a few conservative politicians, as though to acknowledge the democratic possibility that reconciliation might not be what all non-Indigenous Australians wanted. There were, of course, plenty of ‘real stakeholders’ – in this case, Koori folk. There were plenty of leadership figures from the national Indigenous peak bodies. There were plenty of non-Indigenous politicians, public servants, religious leaders and other influential figures who could be counted on to support the goal of an Australia reconciled over its history of expropriation and genocide. And there were plenty of inner-city progressive lefty types.

Significantly, as you might sense from the audio and video excerpts freely available online, it was a rowdy audience. Keating was, in one sense, preaching to the converted – the majority of the audience thought history had dealt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a tough hand and that this merited a reallocation of at least some of the cards. But in another sense he was speaking to an unconvertible contingent: Koori locals whose experiences were so bitter that nothing a white prime minister said could mollify them.

I think it is precisely those people who made the moment of this speech so intense, at least as a performance. The man somewhere up the back who can be heard repeatedly roaring – to Australia’s prime minister, mind – ‘Get out of our country!’ The kids who continued their raucous games close enough that no microphone filter could remove the noise. These are the unreachable types Keating reached out to with what he later called a ‘fundamental act of recognition’.

Extract 1

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.

In other words, Keating instantiated a grammatical paradigm that has governed subsequent discourse about Aboriginal reconciliation, whatever the motives of the discussants. This is not to suggest that nobody had ever spoken like that before, but Keating, as a non-Indigenous person, could have drawn on other constructions, many of which would have entailed significant ethnic and/or racial discrimination within the ‘we’ identity. However, Keating’s frame bridges all such distinctions, except of course the primary distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Extract 2

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 in the frontier and exploration history of Australia.

They are there in the wars.

In sport to an extraordinary degree.

In literature and art and music.

In all these things they have shaped our knowledge of this continent and of ourselves. They have shaped our identity.

They are there in the Australian legend.

We should never forget – they have helped 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 us if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of land we had lived on for fifty thousand 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 had 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 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 the injustice and then were blamed for it.

It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice we can imagine its opposite.

And we can have justice.

The above is not an argument that Keating first coined the us-and-them frame to countenance Aboriginal reconciliation. I am very sceptical that any original author could be found. A fundamentally identical frame covers non-Indigenous discussions of Aboriginal reconciliation in Canada, by comparison, and there is no compelling evidence that Canada’s population acquired it from Australia’s.


The speaker-persona

It is also important to remember the unconverted public to whom Keating was not speaking in Redfern: that large body of non-Indigenous Australians who regard ‘Aboriginal reconciliation’ as a wanton distraction from the practicalities of government. In the 1993 federal election, the Australian public voted inconclusively, but by 1996 people had united against Keating, whom they saw as arrogant in his manners and political concerns. Because this delivered government to the Liberal Party’s John Howard, such voters became known as the ‘Howard battlers’. As Anna Clark notes, integral to the emergence of this decisive new political alignment was a new dispensation of pronouns, an attempt to turn public gazing away from questions of reconciliation:

Howard’s ‘All of Us’ represented a vague collective Australian identity. It also became an astute conservative slogan playing off racial disharmony for political gain; as Noel Pearson contended, it implied an Australia ‘For All of Us (but not them).’

Gestures of respect towards ‘the Aboriginal guilt industry’ along the lines of the Redfern Park speech were a leading reason why the Howard battlers parted ways so conclusively with Keating. His speechwriter, Don Watson, whom we shall soon consider directly, captures this dynamic, and the role of Aboriginal reconciliation within it, in his political insider’s memoir, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart.

I have argued elsewhere that political language is a class of poetry, and political speeches are a class of performance poetry. But the video recordings of this speech remind us that Keating’s performance was strikingly ‘writerly’, rather than performed for charismatic effect. That marks a significant contrast with Keating’s fluency, command and sheer destructive glee as an improvising speaker. YouTube extracts from his parliamentary performances show this abundantly: watching his 1994 ‘Acme Fightback!’ impromptu, for example, one is immediately struck by the tone of voice, the dramatic timing, and the facial and body movements as he turns out his epithets of abuse and entertainment. In the principally aesthetic relationship that citizens have with political discourse, Keating is principally remembered for such epithets, both with adoration by those who adore his memory and with loathing by those who loathe it.

So, again, what a contrast the Redfern Park speech represents in its lack of performative fluency! Note the amateurish set-up: microphone feedback, down-beat backdrop, poor lighting, lack of ‘televisuality’. Note the background noise, even heckling and abuse. Note how script-bound the performance was – as though spoken more with a view to its place as written history rather than to its performative moment. And international comparisons might prompt us to note the use of a paper manuscript – definitely no autocue or ‘sincerity machine’ here.


The performance manuscript

But what a manuscript it was! Keating’s office has kindly permitted me to use a copy, complete with handwritten annotations from the morning before the speech was performed. Comparing the manuscript with transcripts and recordings, comparing versions of the transcript, comparing transcripts and recordings of the performance, comparing the public statements by Keating and Watson since the speech, and comparing all these to personal correspondence with Watson, makes me convinced that this was, for most substantive purposes, fairly close to a verbatim performance of the manuscript.

Watson has described the procedure for developing this manuscript as unusual in that it missed out on the regular level of ‘office scrutiny’, the final draft being read only by Keating himself before his delivery. Watson contends that this almost certainly headed off the temptation for Keating’s advisors to hedge the speech’s most memorable lines, especially in the extracts quoted above. Watson also suggests it enabled Keating the frontman to step outside the comfort zone of his office, leaving his staff to catch up with control of the message once it had gone public.

When one looks at the manuscript (although Overland has not shown all of the white space to demonstrate two examples here), one sees a word-processed document printed on landscape-oriented pages, with line-and-a-half spacing and a large sans-serif type. Numbers 1–22 are handwritten near the top of each page. The same hand – Keating’s – has scrawled changes to only a small number of words – for example, the manuscript’s initial formulation on page 8, ‘We took the children from their mothers,’ has seen ‘their’ changed to ‘the.’ Much more common, though, are annotations that mark up timing, emphasis and phrase coherence. Keating had a fairly systematic schema of underlines and margin-brackets to guide him in the speech performance. Importantly, all these linear notes show a speaker striving primarily to interpret and make the most of his manuscript before delivery, but not so much to edit and alter it. They are annotations that a musician might make before performing a score. They suggest a powerful sense of fidelity to the manuscript as authoritative composition.

Equally striking evidence of this performative writerly-ness is the way subsequent discussions of and quotations from this speech invariably pay attention to its lexicogrammar – to the words and their arrangement – but rarely to its delivery. Scholarly and journalistic commentary continues to focus on the style of the speech, but it is the language style as scripted rather than Keating-the-performer’s tone of voice, body language or marginal improvisations. Contrast, say, the focus on Churchill’s accent when people recall his wartime speeches – as in the subsequent revelations that several were performed by a voice double, for example, or as spoofed on The Goodies.

Of course, any speechwriting relationship requires a critical distinction between manuscript and performance – which is separate from the also critical distinction between writer and performer. Perhaps the focus on literary style is because that is where the speech’s performative edge was most salient. After all, they are brutally elegant sentences, even if you happen to reject their sentiments: ‘We brought the diseases. The alcohol./We committed the murders./We took the children from their mothers.’ The moral clarity of this prose is unmistakable, and its candour on points of historical revision has provided a template for pro-reconciliation rhetoric ever since.

A speechwriter’s manuscript is always in prospect, not retrospect. A manuscript anticipates deeds by the performer its writer(s) serves, to whose performance it is necessarily subordinate. Whereas a transcript of a speech is a written record – however accurately or inaccurately compiled – of the phrasing of the speech itself, a manuscript can never record more than intentions about things to say. In other words, a speechwriter’s manuscript is always in the act of becoming a speech, but can never complete that action without ceasing to be a manuscript. Remarkable in this instance, though, is the extent to which the manuscript became a speech that was faithful to the manuscript, its style of delivery being so thoroughly governed by its written phrasing and punctuation. Comparing the manuscript to the available recordings reveals this element especially clearly. Furthermore, analysing Keating’s marginal notes reveals that it was the clear intention all along.


The speechwriter

The last main element of this argument is a consideration of the speechwriter and his role. Watson is himself – and was already then – a genuine celebrity writer and author in Australia. Before he went to write speeches for Keating, he had been successful as a historian (including at my institution, Victoria University) and as a comedy scriptwriter. In the years since Keating lost office, Watson has been equally celebrated as a journalist and essayist, especially in his self-appointed role as a latter-day George Orwell, documenting the decline of public language.

As noted earlier, in 2002 Watson published Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, an insider’s memoir on the running, and subsequent decline and fall, of Keating’s government. As well as exposing some of the more fascinating tensions about life inside a prime minister’s office, Watson’s book also reveals the major tensions lurking for any political leader hiring an established author instead of a technician to write for her or him. I have a fear that this tale may be taken as grounds to retire that practice for good.

Keating’s response was hot anger: he wrote and spoke a fusillade of brickbats on Watson’s personality and motivations, attacking the book’s publication as an act of kiss-and-tell. Keating quoted the ALP’s most revered speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg, who (Keating said) offered a four-word judgement where others in the party might have offered four-letter judgements: ‘Broke the contract, mate.’ Keating went on to explain that Freudenberg ‘meant the contract of participating in the endeavour and the power in return for anonymity and confidentiality’.

The Freudenberg quotation itself is in dispute, but, taken at face value, Keating uses it to suggest either that former political staff should not reveal anything their former employers do not permit – or, more strictly, that they should stay forever silent about their working years. That is, the ethical and professional compact should outlast the defined terms of the employment contract. I am sure such an edict would not be sustainable in all circumstances. In the United States, for example, it is very common for former speechwriters to use the memoir as a vehicle for self-promotion, once their contracts or consultancies are over. Not that Watson’s memoir is similar to many of theirs: he is much less inclined to whitewash history than the ripping reads that fill your average logographologist’s bookshelf, and this level of open critique may well have motivated Keating’s feelings of betrayal.

Watson’s essential counterclaim seems to be that he is a writer. When he stops writing for someone in particular, he still keeps on writing. Presumably the letter of the contract permits this interpretation, because Keating did not choose to contest the memoir’s publication legally.

But the real point of Keating’s complaint was an intellectual property dispute. He insisted that ‘Watson was not the author of the speech. The sentiments of the speech, that is, the core of its authority and authorship, were mine.’ So does that make Keating the author?

The speechwriter and novelist Joel Deane agreed with this line, arguing the first rule of speechwriting is that ‘the words aren’t yours’. Complicating the situation, Watson had already pleaded no contest. While still employed in Keating’s office, in a published collection of speech transcripts that includes the Redfern Park speech, Watson set out a very minimalist ethics of speechwriting: ‘There are no rules or guidelines, except the unwritten one: ownership resides in the speaker.’

The 1920s Soviet linguist Valentin Voloshinov noted that such disputes are the very essence of oratory, and must forever lead the investigations of rhetorical studies:

Rhetoric requires a distinct cognisance of the boundaries of reported speech. It is marked by acute awareness of property rights to words and by a fastidiousness in matters of authenticity.

But is the speech’s authorship in that sense really the contest here? It seems that we have a contest about the wordsmithing, about the drafting work. Keating claims that he was both the sole performer and the leading scriptwriter. Watson argues his erstwhile boss was the former but not the latter. To my eye, the most interesting aspect of Keating’s remarks is the assertion that he was an integral part of the drafting team, a fellow-techie, not merely some benign director who fed the running briefs to his creative staff, and in any case certainly more than just some show pony who performed the scripted lines. There must be at least some truth to this view – but to think it even matters implies that, in a distinction between authorship and writership, our assumptions about creativity and conceptual design in political speeches rest heavily with the writer. How different such a view is from standard practice in some other fields where a manuscript cues a performance – filmmaking, for example.

A brilliant speech is liable to be particularly contested ground for anybody who thinks they deserve a share of the credit. I have no interest in finding one or other party right or wrong in this matter of Keating versus Watson; the existence of the dispute itself tells us more of interest than its adjudication is ever likely to. Any resolution may matter a great deal to the two disputants, of course, but it matters less to this speech’s public. People who remember Keating fondly often cite his employment of Watson as evidence for their attitude; people who admire Watson tend to count his work in Keating’s office as evidence for theirs. This speech typically features somewhere near the top of the list in both conversations.

Tom Clark

Tom Clark is a senior lecturer at Victoria University, and is president of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association. He is the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012).

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