Statement by the Co-Chairs of Reconciliation Australia commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Redfern speech

Twenty years ago today Australia’s then Prime Minister, the Honourable Paul Keating, gave what was to become recognised as one of the most significant speeches ever delivered by an Australian political leader.

The speech in Sydney’s Redfern Park was the first time an Australian political leader had publically acknowledged the devastating impact of both colonial and contemporary government policies on Australia’s First Peoples. In his speech Keating spoke frankly and honestly of the land theft, dispossession, violence and discrimination suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in the course of modern Australia’s creation.

Significantly, Keating referred to the need for what he described as an “act of recognition”. While at the time he was referring to the recognition of the suffering and exclusion of Australia’s First Peoples, his words were perhaps a portent of a more recent development in Australia’s journey towards reconciliation, namely, last month’s introduction of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 to the Australian Parliament.

Two years before his ground-breaking Redfern speech Keating introduced, with bipartisan political support, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 into the Australian Parliament and the formal process of reconciliation was established as official Australian Government policy.

We are pleased that this bipartisanship has been maintained with both the current Prime Minister and Opposition Leader pledging their support for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 is tabled in Parliament next year.

The tabling of this Bill is a critical step towards a referendum to update the Australian constitution to recognise the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within Australia. Constitutional recognition is a key building block in the journey of reconciliation.

Keating ended his Redfern speech by expressing his strong view that Australia would succeed in the challenge for reconciliation and, twenty years on, we agree with his assessment and express confidence that current efforts for constitutional recognition will also succeed. As Keating told the Redfern audience, “we cannot imagine failure”.

Dr Tom Calma AO and Ms Melinda Cilento – Co-Chairs of Reconciliation Australia

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