Redfern speech elevated to National Film and Sound Archive collection of national significance

Paul Keating - The Redfern Address
The Redfern Address
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Redfern speech flatters writer as well as orator

Denis Glover The Australian - National Affairs August 27, 2010

The Redfern speech of December 10, 1992, is one of the most controversial and important speeches in Australian history.

Earlier this week it was elevated to a National Film and Sound Archive collection of national significance, immediately followed by wrangling over its authorship.

Paul Keating points to the undisputed facts that the delivery, the ideas, the sentiments and some of the words were his; Don Watson points to the equally undisputed fact that his hand wrote it. So, who deserves the credit?

The answer is both of them, equally, because a great political speech, unlike workaday political spin, requires substance and style to be remembered. In truth, Keating and Watson, perhaps like Keating and Bob Hawke, needed each other to make history.

Let's look at the speech's substance. Like most notable political speeches, the Redfern address had great moment: a nation struggling to come to grips with the implications of the Mabo judgment and the shocking revelations of the royal commission into black deaths in custody. Keating's response, delivered at the launch of the Year of the World's Indigenous People, caused a sensation. The question is, why?

Of course the subject matter was profound: acknowledgment of the crimes committed by European settlers against indigenous Australians.

As the champion of that unpopular cause, Keating deserves enormous credit for his political courage, as Watson acknowledges. But we have to also ask: what if it was said differently? What if Keating had spoken informally, John Howard-like, off the cuff, and said something such as: "We can't delay any longer making amends for the injustices of the past, so the government is committed to reconciling with our country's first peoples through the following 10-point plan"? Would it have been remembered? Perhaps by historians, but not by the rest of us.

In politics it's not just what you say but how you say it that counts. Eloquence matters. Sometimes simple straight talking is all that's required; at other times what's needed is something approaching poetry. Kevin Rudd's demise is instructive.

That's what a speechwriter of Watson's class gave Keating. So let's look at the poetry of the Redfern speech.

Watson, perhaps modestly, perhaps in deference to Keating's limitations with a written text (Keating was unmatched when it came to extempore exchanges, having a devastating facility for withering invective), wrote afterwards: "Comparisons with Martin Luther King being inevitably invidious, rhetorical fireworks and high sentiment were not attempted." True enough, but that doesn't mean the speech was prosaic. Read the following passage to yourself; then read it again, out loud, to your workmates:

"The starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. [Audience stops catcalling] 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. [Applause] 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 works, doesn't it? The speechwriter can tell you why: intentionally or not, the Redfern speech is packed with the same classical rhetorical devices that appear in speeches by Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and King. They're easy to spot, although Watson's genius lies in not allowing them to distract.

Placing "recognition" back to back in successive sentences, that's called anadiplosis. The repetition of "we" at the start of each sentence, anaphora. The repetition of "our" near the end of successive clauses, epiphora. Using "we" three times, tricolon. The juxtaposition of them and us, antithesis. The profound rhetorical question, erotema. The emotional appeal that stopped the catcalling, pathos. The appeal to the audience to make amends, ethos. And, finally, the shocking truths themselves, logos.

These rhetorical ticks are what animate the great speeches we all know; in fact they're largely why we remember them: "we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall . . ." (anaphora); "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you . . ." (antimetabole); "I have a dream that . . . I have a dream that . . . I have a dream today!" (anaphora, metaphor and, in all three examples, ethos).

In Watson's case, these techniques were almost certainly employed unconsciously, but they make the speech a technical masterpiece. It's in what classicists call the Ciceronian middle style.

Obviously, this professorial categorising doesn't matter, but the effect it has on an audience does because these techniques appeal to the intellect, emotion and ear in ways that off-the-cuff remarks never can.

As with the Gettysburg Address, the Redfern speech demonstrates, by eloquently reconceptualising the official view of history, how a speech can alter the underlying meaning of a constitution. That's some achievement for mere words.

The hope contained in those words may not have been fulfilled quite yet, although the word "sorry" has already been spoken; but that day is coming.

As for Keating's other complaint that Watson broke the implicit contract between speaker and writer and should have remained silent about his role, Watson's recollections were published a decade after the event, after the leading players had already exited the political stage.

The great speechwriters always write such books and have the good sense to wait until the theatre has closed, as Watson did.

The truth about the Redfern speech has in fact hurt no one and arguably has given us fresh insights about how great oratory (something obviously in short supply in our time) comes about. Rather than feel slighted by Watson's claim to authorship, Keating should be rightly proud that he had the good sense to employ a great speechwriter because it was the combination of the speaker's guts and the writer's style that gave Australia a speech the equal of any in our era.

Dennis Glover's book The Art of Great Speeches will be released later this year.