There is a beautiful fountain in Redfern Park. It’s called Lotus Line and children run through it squealing with delight. Dogs, however, stand at its edge staring in puzzlement at the spot where the water shot out and smacked them on the snout. The fountain is part of the children’s play area set amongst the Moreton Bay figs; sculptures representing seed pods, yam seeds, and Biami (an Aboriginal male ancestor figure of South East Australia) double as places to play. The whole creation is an installation by artist Fiona Foley called Bibles & Bullets.
Twenty three years ago Prime Minister Paul Keating gave his now famous Redfern speech in this park. An extract is carved on a bronze plaque at the southern edge of the water play fountain. These words inscribed in the ground at the Redfern Oval end of the park are a physical acknowledgement of Redfern’s political importance as a centre for Koori history and activism.
According to the Dictionary of Sydney, Redfern Oval and Redfern Park were, “where big plans for self-determination and Aboriginal autonomy were first discussed and made. It was here that an informal ‘politics in the park’ produced early ideas for the formation of the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service, which were both set up in Redfern in the early 1970s.” (1)
Keating’s speech was the first time that an Australian Prime Minister publicly acknowledged the responsibility of European settlers for the atrocities committed on Indigenous Australians. A brave and hopeful event in our sometimes dark history; the speech was delivered after the High Court’s historic Mabo decision which overturned the concept of Terra Nullius and acknowledged the existence of Aboriginal people in Australia before colonisation.
“It begins, I think, with the 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 disasters.
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.
With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.
We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?
As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.” (2)
There is another beautiful fountain in the park. It’s called The Baptist Fountain and was donated by John Baptist in 1890. This Victorian era, tiered, cast iron fountain transports us back to the 19th century. A very different Redfern to that evoked by the sculptures, representing the Indigenous spirit of this place, that form the modern play area. The Baptist Fountain, in contrast, represents for me the spirit of 19th century Australia which did it’s best to crush that Indigenous spirit.
Allowing the dark and light of our history to live side by side in this local park is a powerful expression of hope; the juxtaposition of these artefacts a symbol of reconciliation.
In contrast to the 19th century, the 20th century and in particular the 1960’s were a much more radical time in Australia’s history. In 1962 the right of Indigenous Australians to vote in Commonwealth elections was legislated . In 1967 a Federal referendum was held asking Australians to decide whether two references in the Australian Constitution, which discriminated against Aboriginal people, should be removed. That referendum saw the highest YES vote ever recorded in a Federal referendum, with 90.77 per cent voting for change. The 1990’s brought recognition of land rights and Keating’s Redfern speech but it wasn’t until 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, that we formally acknowledged the wrongs committed in the past.
These historic milestones, along with targeted Government policy and funding, have improved education and health outcomes for Indigenous Australians but Aboriginal life expectancy in Australia is still more than 10 years below that of the average non-Aboriginal Australian: 69.1 years for males and 73.7 years for females. (3)
We need to tell our Governments that this gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ is unacceptable.
And Australians need to once again be given the opportunity to vote in the current proposal to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.
This might be a complex and difficult area of public debate but we need to discuss the possibilities and what they will mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all Australians.
On the 27th of May 2017, it will be the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. I would love to be at Redfern Park on that day celebrating that amazing event. And I would also love to be celebrating an overwhelming YES vote in a referendum on Constitutional Recognition for Aboriginal Australians.
(2) Transcript of Redfern Park Speech:https://antar.org.au/sites/default/files/paul_keating_speech_transcript.pdf
(3) “Closing the Gap Report 2014” produced by the Council of Australian Governments;https://www.dpmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/Closing_the_Gap_2015_Report.pdf)