Friday, June 22, 2007


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...


Scott said...

Terrific stuff Stephen,

I had just returned from Japan after few years in South East and North East Asia and was studying and living in Sydney, not far from you actually, when Keating gave that speech.

Never was I more proud to be Australian. I even went to the Aboriginal legal officers in Redfern with a view to changing my degree to law so as I could be of more help.

I remained in Sydney until just after the election of Howard for the first time and that result together with the slow decay of Australian political and social life played a large part in my final decision to go back overseas. (Yes I took the yobs advice of "love it or leave it.")

Bring back the men of vision those with a "sense of justice as well as common sense."

Keating ruled then but looks even god like when compared and contrasted to "little Jonny." now.

Tuggeranong Don said...

I had a diplomatic posting in Africa for three years and was shocked at the level of poverty and discrimination I came across in black communities there. But I was even more shocked when I came home and visited Aboriginal communities in the NT. I found it hard to accept that we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet have a segment in our community with a lifestyle that is suffering more than what I came across in Africa.

I can't speak for the political level but I do know that at the bureaucratic level there are many, many well intentioned bureaucrats who struggle with aboriginal disadvantage. There is much good will there at that level but the problems have been enormously difficult to rectify.

oldsprinter said...

Just to clarify, I'm not knocking Keating or Whitlam, or trying to say they were in any way like Howard - those guys were/are my heros (along with Donald Dunstan). I was a Labor Party member when Keating gave his speech, I was working for the party, yada yada. BUT, when Keating gave that speech he did so in a personal capacity. And he did so because he didn't have the guts to go to his party or the people and tell them it's time to say sorry as a nation. Basically because he thought it would lead to litigation, cost too much and lose him popularity with floating voters. All politicians are pragmatists in the end (Whitlam sold out on East Timor, Fraser sold out on pretty much all his principles, Hawke never had any to sell), and the guys such as Doc Evatt who don't sell out, don't get in.

Scott said...

Can't argue with that "old sprinter"! Don Dunstan, now that takes me back ;)

Stephen Lacey said...

And Gordon, I didn't take your previous comment as necessarily a criticism, more of an understandable "pox on all their houses" wrt our collective failures on this issue. It just prompted me to reflect on the Keating years and the fact that real progress was being made at levels where the federal gov't actually had power to make a difference. They were pretty exciting times, the early to mid 90s. As a nation we were engaged in all sorts of discussions and debates about how we could move forward and be better on all kinds of fronts that did not involve an economic index. We knew the importance of good economic management, but understood that a country was more than an economy. The big economic reforms had been achieved through the 80s. So we were talking about these issues of the republic, the flag, how to engage with and perhaps redress the worst aspects of our past, how to reconcile our modern European heritage with our geographical location in Asia. Trying to overcome the small-minded scaredy cats and re-define our identity, realign our national trajectory. How to become no less Australians, but greater, richer, stronger, more independent and self-sufficient Australians. Compare it with today? Howard's years have left us in limbo on all these fronts, our education and training and R&D capacities all diminished, and the economic "miracle" a result of draconian slashing of public budgets, domestic pump priming (1st home owners rebate etc), all fuelled by the fortuitous resources boom.

running said...

It takes an Aussie in Japan to make good social commentary on what is happening here. I thought of some sort of comment and did not get around to it.

Just remninds me of the 1920s and Prohibition - well what I have read about it in USA.

Good post.

cheers PLu