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Keating speech still powerful 25 years on

The wound in Australia’s soul can be healed so long as the fight for indigenous equality continues and hope remains.

That is the message from indigenous leaders 25 years on from former prime minister Paul Keating’s landmark Redfern speech on Aboriginal injustice.

The address, delivered on December 10, 1992, was the first time an Australian political leader admitted the impact of white settlement, which wreaked death and destruction on Aboriginal people, culture and society.

It has become one of the most unforgettable speeches in Australian history.

“It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol,” the prime minister told the crowd gathered at Redfern Park.

“We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine that these things could be done to us.”

His resounding words remain just as relevant today because of the continued effects of injustice and discrimination, indigenous leaders say.

In the wake of same-sex marriage legislation passing on Thursday, Australian Human Rights Commissioner June Oscar has urged politicians to dedicate that same passion to achieving equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“We have seen courageous leadership from our politicians. We need to see that again,” the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner told AAP.

“What saddens me is that we haven’t really followed (Mr Keating’s speech) and implemented it.

“Fatigue happens. But we cannot afford to lose hope. We must continue.”

The sentiment was echoed by Oxfam Australia’s Indigenous Manager Ngarra Murray, who says successive governments have failed to do away with entrenched poverty and inequality.

“A quarter of a century on from the Redfern speech, far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live in circumstances akin to those in developing countries,” she told AAP.

The Closing the Gap report earlier this year revealed the indigenous employment rate was 48.4 per cent, compared with 72.6 per cent for non-indigenous Australians.

It also showed Australia is not on track to close the life expectancy gap by 2031, or halve the employment gap.

Disparities also remain in education levels, life expectancy, child mortality rates and family violence rates.

Despite angst towards the country’s political leaders, National Congress of Australia’s First People Co-Chair Jackie Huggins says it’s important to build positive relationships for progress.

In October, the National Congress met with state and federal governments for a new COAG Ministerial Council on Indigenous Affairs.

“We can all move on together. I really believe that,” Dr Huggins told AAP.

Dr Huggins urged politicians to overcome their timidness around addressing Aboriginal issues, and follow in the footsteps of Mr Keating.

“(It’s) the wound in the soul of Australia,” she said.

Mr Keating’s address came six months after the High Court’s Mabo decision on native title, which rejected the doctrine of terra nullius – that no-one owned the land of Australia when the first European settlers arrived.

The former prime minister praised the judgement for doing away with the “bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans”.

His speech also followed a Royal Commission report, delivered in April 1991, into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The investigation was launched in 1987 to examine why so many indigenous people were dying in jail and police custody.

Since then, the death rate has fallen but indigenous incarceration rates have increased markedly.

In the past 17 years the adult imprisonment rate has increased by 77 per cent, according to the Productivity Commission.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are now 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous people, according to indigenous organisation Change the Record.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation National Director Andrew Meehan says Australians are crying out for a leader who can live up to the powerful words spoken 25 years ago.

“(Mr Keating) invited Australia to imagine if this had happened to us. (To) have some empathy,” he said.

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