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BACKTRACKER: The soul of Redfern

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his famous Redfern Speech in 1992.

NATIONAL: The widely publicised dispute about who wrote Paul Keating’s famous 1992 Redfern speech left out the Aboriginal contribution, writes BRIAN JOHNSTONE*.

Sol Bellear is a name known to most Aboriginal people in New South Wales and throughout Australia.

Luckily, Sol occupies a work space only a couple of metres from this columnist in NSWALC*’s Sydney office.

He’s a reassuring presence; a constant reminder of a man who has spent his entire adult life seeking to advance the rights and aspirations of his people.

Sol is always available to talk to, and inspire, younger (and older) members of staff about the history and ongoing fight for land rights and recognition while going about his work in a quiet unassuming fashion.

He works on a number of important projects, not least an evolving Legends of Land Rights audio and visual project.

The project records the stories of those who fought for, and won, land rights in NSW back in the eighties and who campaigned for the introduction of companion national legislation.

I’ve always thought it a bit ironic given Sol has so many untold stories himself.

This is just one of them.

But first I must make a lengthy digression.

Bear with me.

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a revealing interview Robert Manne conducted with Paul Keating on the Wheeler Centre’s Slow TV channel.

Our last Labor conviction Prime Minister explained why it was crucial to settle national land rights legislation as part of his vision of Australia becoming a Republic and engaging fully with Asia as an independent nation.

Keating told Manne the Hawke Government had “buckled,” to pressure on the national land rights model from the conservative forces within the party in New South Wales and Western Australia.

“When Bob (Hawke) proposed it in 1984 Brian Burke(then WA Premier) and Graham Richardson (then godfather of the NSW Right) knocked Bob over,” he told Manne.

“He gave it up,” he added.

“I used to say to him even if the pair of us go to the Labor Party Conference on our own…we will just about get this through. But he would not do it.”

Manne: “Why wouldn’t he?”

Keating: “Well, his nerves went.

“He went down the hole in 1984. He did not have the guts for it. He did not have the fight for it. The end result was it sat there undone. It was unfinished business…. until the Mabo decision.

“Mabo was a great decision because it overturned common law title to land imposed by the British.

“What the High Court said was that from this day on Aboriginal custom and tradition will also be a source of the common law including title…but who has the title we do not know….what is a title we do not know….and who can get it..we do not know.

“That was it. They dropped this little bundle on us and that was that.

“I had the choice in 1992 of either constructing this piece of property and cultural law to make certain about native title or leave it to be extinguished by grants of interest in land by the Queensland and Western Australian governments.

“The Queensland and WA Governments would have wiped native title out. So that was the urgency about doing it….and I brought the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander right into the Cabinet process for the first time ever.

“It was a thing Australia would not face up to….the original colonial grievance…the dispossession…and frankly neither would the Labor Party.

“The first thing was dispossession and native title did something about it.”

Keating then talked about the land fund being established to buy back pastoral leases and the third tier of the Mabo response..the social justice package that was never delivered given his loss to Howard in the 1996 election.

He told Manne if he had won in 1996 “I would have pushed all of that on a big plane forward”.

“I would have been Aboriginal Affairs Minister. I would not have given it to anyone else.”

Manne then raised Keating’s seminal speech at then Australian launch of the then International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples which he delivered in Redfern on December 10, 1992 and asked why he thought Australia could never face up to its history.

Keating said he felt it was bound up in all the “attendant cultural stuff about the monoculture” and the arrogance of the British.

“I always thought the original grievance is the dispossession.

“I have never understood why this was such an affront to conservative Australia. History should not be an affront.”

The interview inspired me to go back and look at a You Tube video of the 10-year old speech.

I found myself again struck by Keating’s courage and conviction, particularly the soulful searing lines in which he asked non-Aboriginal Australians to recognise that it was “we who did the dispossessing”.

Can you imagine any latter day Australian political leader being honest enough to declare:

“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 practiced 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?..”

I also came across a short public stoush between Keating and his former speechwriter Don Watson a couple of years ago over authorship of the speech.

Watson had claimed authorship in an article in the Fairfax newspapers in August 2010.

Keating responded the next day to make clear “Watson was not the author of the speech”.

“The sentiments of the speech,” he wrote, ”that is the core of its authority and authorship were mine. I had discussed with Watson on dozens of occasions how non Indigenous Australia could never make good our relationship with until we came clean about the history.

So the sentiments that ‘we did the dispossessing…we brought the diseases, that alcohol, that we committed the murders, and took the children from their mothers were my sentiments. PJ Keating’s sentiments…”

Neither was telling the whole story.

I recently mentioned all of this to Sol, who I realised on viewing the video, had introduced Keating on the day.

It soon became clear he had a major hand in the speech.

Sol revealed he had been requested as Acting Chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to introduce Keating on the day.

This involved a number of meetings with Keating’s staff and the former PM who, at that stage, were scouting around for a location for the speech and considering the content of what should and would be said.

It was Sol who successfully proposed the speech be delivered in Redfern.

He consistently impressed the importance on Keating and his staff of acknowledging it was the British who brought the small pox, who committed the murders, poisoned the waterholes and who created the original colonial grievance…the dispossession.

This, he explained, was often forgotten in public debate, or simply not known, by many Australians.
Keating got it.

Elements of Sol’s draft introductory speech found their way into those of the Prime Minister’s.

The final words and sentiments of the speech, now regarded as one of the finest ever delivered by an Australian politician, may have been a mixture of Keating and Watson.

But Sol was clearly responsible for its soul.

*Brian Johnstone is a Walkley and Human Rights award-winning journalist, and an employee of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council.

An excerpt from Paul Keating’s famous Redfern speech:

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