A comment from Gordon (oldsprinter) on my last post has prompted me to follow up a bit. You know that hackneyed evangelical refrain, What Would Jesus Do? Well, Gordon opined that Whitlam and Keating never said sorry either. While no Australian government can exactly shower itself in glory over issues of aboriginal reconciliation, neither Whitlam nor Keating, nor Hawke nor Fraser, nor any who came before them, had a Stolen Generation report to respond to. Howard did, and his response was to duck and weave and consider it an embarrassing part of Keating's "black armband view of history".
So let's just stop and ask ourselves for a minute, what would Keating have done? The thing is, Keating, I believe, came closest to a sincere and honest response to aboriginal justice. In 1992 I was driving home from work and his Redfern Speech, delivered earlier in the day, was being replayed on the ABC current affairs radio program, PM. I have always strongly felt a sense of injustice and shame about the long sad treatment of aborigines. I had long wondered when would our politicians stop the obfuscation and shirking of responsibility. And here was Keating's voice, the new Prime Minister, delivering these powerful, moving, honest words. Here was the representative of the Crown admitting that there were wrongs and inhumane injustices in our past that needed to be confronted before we could move on to build something better. This was a real and true brand new dawn for reconciliation. I suddenly realized that it could happen. The emotion was enormous and overwhelming and I found myself weeping openly in the car. Tears were streaming down my face and snot was running out my nose. I still remember where I was, right there in Mowbray Road near the primary school headed towards home in Artarmon. I remember it like it was yesterday. When I got home I sat in the car and listened to the end of the speech and then had to sit some more before I could go inside.
Of course Keating's short few years in power didn't exactly create domestic bliss in every aboriginal home throughout the land. But it was the Keating government that introduced the Native Title legislation in response to the High Court's Mabo decision. This created howls of protests from the States as they saw Crown and leasehold land slipping "into the clutches" of the aborigines. It required enormous political will to make this happen. And I believe the impact of this legislation on furthering aboriginal pride and dignity and giving them some basis for self determination is vastly under-estimated. Don't forget Keating also tried to set us on a path towards becoming a republic and tried to get us fully engaged with Asia. Compare all that with the Howard government's approach.
I don't mind admitting that the other time that Keating made me cry was when he was voted out in 1995. I couldn't, still can't, understand how the Australian people could not see what great things he was doing for us as a country. I really think that was the single worst thing to happen to Australia in my lifetime. And I was alive during the Dismissal (though a bit young to remember it. I still think it rates behind 2 March 1996).
Anyway, here is an excerpt from the Redfern Speech. Listen to it, think about the legacy of the Native Title legislation, and ponder what else might have been...