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26th anniversary of Redfern speech

Addressing a crowd at Redfern Park on December 10 1992, the then-prime minister, the Hon Paul Keating, put reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians firmly on the political agenda and set the country on a course that would eventually result in a formal apology to Indigenous Australians.

Given as part of the opening ceremony for Australia’s participation in the United Nations International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the speech became known as the Redfern Address and was the first public acknowledgement by the Australian government of the dispossession and institutional abuses suffered by first Australians.

Keating’s speech, given to a predominantly Aboriginal crowd at the symbolic home of Aboriginal Sydney, addressed the historical abuses of past governments and called on non-Indigenous people to ask: “how would I feel if this were done to me?” The timing of the speech was significant, coming a year after the release of the Royal Commission report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and six months after the High Court’s Mabo native title decision to reject the doctrine of terra nullius - a judgement that Keating praised for finally doing away with the “bizarre conceit that this continent had no owners prior to the settlement of Europeans.”

The speech remains a powerful acknowledgement of the tragic and brutal history of European settlers and successive governments.

the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians,” says Keating.

“It begins, I think, with that act of recognition.
Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
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 these things being done to us.”

But in the 26 years since the address, progress has been slow or halted. Despite a 2008 commitment from the Australian government to address Indigenous disadvantage known as ‘Closing the Gap’, and Australia’s 2009 formal support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, injustice and inequality continue to be experienced by Indigenous people and communities across the country.

This inequality is perhaps best and most vividly depicted in incarceration figures, which show Indigenous Australians to be the most incarcerated people on the planet. The most recent ABS data shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians comprise 3.3% of the population yet represent 28% of the total full-time adult prisoner population. This number continues to rise, with the average number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners rising by 5% from 2017 to 2018.

Indigenous Australians also face vast health and life expectancy inequality, including:

  • shorter life expectancy
  • higher rates of infant mortality
  • poorer health
  • and lower levels of education and employment.

Other areas where statistics show a concerning gap in the experience between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are child removals and community and family violence.


It is important to continue to view contemporary disadvantage among Indigenous Australians in the context of colonisation and its continuing damaging impact. A continued desire for change and progress is necessary if Australia is to live up to the standards and awareness Keating set out for the nation, 26 years ago.