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Keating’s Redfern speech is still worth fighting over

The Redfern Park Speech, given by former Australian prime minister Paul Keating on December 10 1992, was a speech worth fighting for. It captured harsh truths about Australian history; it used those as…

The existence of a dispute tells us more than its adjudication is ever likely to. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The Redfern Park Speech, given by former Australian prime minister Paul Keating on December 10 1992, was a speech worth fighting for. It captured harsh truths about Australian history; it used those as a basis for building trust with Indigenous Australians; and it marked a turning-point for non-Indigenous understandings about Aboriginal reconciliation.

But a particular line of interest in the speech is the tension that has arisen between Keating and his former speechwriter Don Watson. This tension essentially dates to the publication of Watson’s memoir Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (discussed below).

Thinking about the dispute with reference to the manuscript – which I have been researching for a longer article in Overland – is an opportunity to reflect on the speech itself. It points to reasons why Watson and Keating have something worth arguing about – why the speech has acquired such lasting resonance in a country that often prefers to forget.

Keating proclaimed the Redfern Park Speech just over a year into his term as prime minister. He chose to do it in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern, which for decades had been the focal point for Aboriginal cultures in Australia’s largest city.

As you might sense from audio and video (see videos below) of the speech, it was a rowdy audience.

Keating was speaking to the converted in one sense, but in another sense he was speaking to a certain unconvertible contingent – some of the Koori locals, whose experience was so bitter that nothing a white prime minister said could mollify them.

The Redfern speech – part one. Part two is below.

As he tried to, though, Keating named the parties to Aboriginal reconciliation in a way that has characterised the grammar of non-Indigenous discussion of it – by supporters, sceptics and apathetic citizens alike – ever since:

1) a “we” that incorporates all non-Indigenous citizens, no matter how recent or ancient their family histories of immigration to Australia.

2) a “they” that incorporates all Indigenous Australians.

In Australia’s public discourse since 1992, to switch pronouns and their entailments away from this frame of reference effectively signals a move away from discussing reconciliation as such.

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 his fluency, command, and sheer destructive glee as an improvising speaker – an aspect the recent Kerry O’Brien interview series brought out strongly.

When we look at the manuscript below, we see a document that Watson typed and printed out for the prime minister in landscape-oriented pages, using large type, sans serif, line-and-a-half spaced.

Numbers 1-22 are handwritten near the top of each page. The same hand, Keating’s, has scrawled changes to very few words.

This page is reproduced from Overland, with permission. PJK MSp

Much more common, though, are annotations that mark up timing, emphasis, and phrase coherence. These non-verbal annotations show a speaker striving to interpret and make the most of his manuscript before delivery, but not so much to edit and alter it.

They are the sorts of annotations a musician might make in preparing a score. They suggest a powerful sense of fidelity to the manuscript.

In 2002 Watson published Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, an insider memoir on the running and then the decline and fall of Keating’s government. It offers a fairly detailed historical background to this manuscript.

Keating’s response to the book was hot anger. He quoted the Australian Labor Party’s most revered speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg, who he claims remarked to him: “Broke the contract mate.”

This Freudenberg quotation itself is of uncertain value as evidence. Whatever its status, Keating uses it to suggest either that former political staff should not reveal anything their former employers do not permit. That is, the ethical and professional compact should outlast the defined terms of the contract of employment.

Watson’s essential counterclaim seems to be that he still is a writer — of books. When he stops writing for someone in particular, he still keeps on writing.

But the sharpest point of Keating’s complaint was an intellectual property dispute. He insisted:

Watson was not the author of the [Redfern Park] speech. The sentiments of the speech, that is, the core of its authority and authorship, were mine.

So does that make Keating the author? Joel Deane and others agreed with this line, arguing the first rule of speechwriting is that “the words aren’t yours”.

The Redfern speech – part two.

Complicating the situation, Watson had already pleaded no contest. Prefacing a published collection of transcripts that includes this 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.

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 creative work.

As a study in rhetoric, the most interesting aspect of Keating’s remarks is the assertion that he was an integral part of the drafting team. He wants to be known as a fellow-techie, not merely some benign director who fed the running briefs to his staff – and certainly more than a show-pony performing the scripted lines.

There must be at least some truth to this view. To think it even matters, though, reveals how assumptions about creativity and conceptual design in political speeches rest with the writer not the performer.

Against such assumptions, speechwriters have traditionally received little attention from political history.

Ultimately, there is not enough evidence, nor any particular need, to find one or other party conclusively right or wrong on this matter of Keating versus Watson. The very existence of the dispute tells us more than its adjudication is ever likely to.

People who remember Keating fondly often cite his employment of Watson as evidence for their attitude. People who admire Watson generally count his work in Paul Keating’s office as evidence for theirs.

This speech typically features somewhere near the top of the list in both conversations.


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15 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email

    If the Redfern speech had been a disaster or forgotten to history, Keating would be happy to let Watson have it.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Excellent piece.

    Speechwriters are curious lot ... at least the best of them. It's a complex symbiotic arrangement. Far more intimate and close than any marriage of two distinct individuals.

    The very best of them - Don Watson being one - are obliged to climb into the minds and hearts of their "mouthpieces" - to craft words and convey ideas they find there. Not only must they agree, they must understand - the issue, the thinking, the feeling - of the speaker and the audience... why he…

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Well said, Peter! Even if the words were Don Watson's (and why should they not be?) they perfectly capture the sentiments and chutzpah of Keating, a Prime Minister who never minced his words but at the same time strived for encapsulation, which is the inclusion of one thing within another so that the particulars, though often small, were never insignificant but always part of a greater narrative about the nation, its dreams, hopes and challenges. What a leader!

      If I may, Keating, while of very different ideology, channelled Gough in this regard. Surely two of our greatest Prime Ministers, princes among exceedingly ordinary women and men! When will we see their like again!

    2. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      "When will we see their like again!" Not for a loooooooooong time at best; perhaps never again. Keating - the treasurer and PM with guts and vision. I am (still) in awe of his intellect.

  3. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "why the speech has acquired such lasting resonance in a country that often prefers to forget."Often prefers to forget, what? The link doesn't work.

  4. Raine S Ferdinands

    Education at Education

    Keating or Watson who cares. That a speech such as this was enunciated by Keating so succinctly and eloquently is enough for me. How we (as a nation) take that forward is our test.
    I sooooo admired Keating then and will continue to do so for a loooooooong time to come; even though I am a Liberal voter.

  5. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    While I think Keating's performance during the recent ABS interviews was pretty appalling, with his claiming personal and single-handed responsibility for all progress in Australian life from 1982 basically up to the present day, I am somewhat on his side over the Redfern Speech. The point of the speech was not only its performance, but its particular local audience in Redfern, and then its manner of mass distribution - TV and radio broadcast. Unlike a great poem, or novel, the greatness was not…

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  6. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Roger Lane

      Just as Keating was no geopolitics whizz, he was even less an historian.

  7. wilma western

    logged in via email

    This is how Watson explains the Redfern speech - one of two Keating gave that day . Don stated they weren't sure which of the 2 would get most publicity.

    "The speech was made to a black audience but its core was an appeal to white Australians. We cannot say we have succeeded as a nation or society if we have not solved the problems arising from the dispossession of Australia's indigenous people....."

    "It was a political gesture of a deliberately simple kind and one no different in essence from…

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to wilma western

      Thank you, Wilma, for taking the trouble to remind us of the real unity of mind, heart and purpose between Paul and Don, two great Australians whose serendipitous association gave us the finest political vision and leadership we have ever had.

      To divide them, especially on the issue of the Redfern speech, would be akin to poring scorn on Nelson Mandela's State Funeral today. Both events need to be savoured as momentous landmarks in the expression, celebration and progression of our shared global humanity.

    2. wilma western

      logged in via email

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Hey Michael I wouldn't be as fulsome as you are about those two - both very gifted but as fallible as any of us! Don far more retiring, self-effacing than PK who after all was PM and DW just one of the many staff . Close to PK , but Don Russell more influential, closer to Keating's "vibe" by DW's account.

      And I agree with P Ormonde that present Oz politics have been far too distorted by waffle about "leadership" as almost the be-all and end-all . I believe Gillard's strength was as leader and enabler of the team.

    3. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to wilma western

      Well, if you like, I'll retract, although your original post sounds very different. I'll stick by my response to it as well as to P. Ormonde's marvellous post. And yes; Gillard was an enabler and there are different models of leadership, including Rudd's solo bravura coloratura performance before she found the most vulnerable point in his ribcage into which to insert her deadly stiletto. Very Machiavellian and in the end injudicious, thought I.

  8. Ai Rui Sheng


    What matters is the PK delivered it. Who cares who wrote it and under how much direction.