TWENTY years ago today, the prime minister of Australia went to Redfern to launch the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

He gave a speech the like of which had never been heard from a prime minister since the birth of the nation.

Let me venture two preliminary points. First, such formal speeches attach to the office of prime minister, and are not merely a speech of a political leader who happens to be prime minister. When Paul Keating spoke at Redfern, he did not do so as the leader of the Labor Party which formed the government of the day.

He did so as the 24th prime minister of Australia. As such, he carried the mantle of that office, and spoke for it. We in Australia are apt to think of the utterances of our national leaders as their own personal effusions.

We forget they speak for something beyond their personal tenure, they speak for an enduring office.

The dismal quality of the great bulk of Australian speech-making does not help things, but our democracy is the poorer for our failure to recognise, like the Americans, that the office of national leader transcends the personal.

Secondly, therefore, unlike the Americans, we have not established the important formal occasions for our prime minister to speak to the country, such as the inaugural addresses following the national election, and the State of the Union address delivered by the president annually.

Such formal opportunities as there are in our country, are dull and uninspiring. Without proper occasion it is little wonder the general standard of Australian political rhetoric is so pedestrian.

The breakthrough speeches in Australia have been the consequence of leaders making or using an occasion.

Keating’s Redfern speech used the occasion of the launch of the International Year of Indigenous Peoples to speak to a matter that had long been gnawing at his soul, which he had now formulated as a cornerstone of his prime ministerial program.

Facing history was the starting point. The words are well-known but bear repetition: “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.

“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.”

This passage resonated across the continent and roiled the national soul, and gave fodder to the culture and history wars.

The rhetorical device used by Keating in using personal empathy for the actions of his own ancestors and of those on whose part he spoke, gave rise to the complaint contemporary Australians could and should not be held responsible for what happened in the past.

While electorally useful to Keating’s political opponents in the emerging cultural war, this complaint ignored the plain words later in the speech: “Down the years, there has been no shortage of guilt, but it has not produced the responses we need. Guilt is not a very constructive emotion. I think what we need to do is open our hearts a bit. All of us.”

The profundity of Keating’s subject and the directness with which he chose to confront it meant that it would not be taken lightly. This was strong medicine. While searching for its soul, he was probing the central nervous system of the nation. Of course there would be convulsions.

Keating gave the speech that Edmund Barton never did. That Alfred Deakin never did. That John Curtin and Ben Chifley never did. That all our prime ministers up to and including Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam never did. That Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke never did.

It was not that Paul Keating made this speech out of some idiosyncratic motivation. It was that some prime minister at some point in Australia’s history had to give this speech. Keating’s genius was to recognise the time had long fallen due for it.

The nation needed these words. This is the sense in which the words of a speech are not just words: they are words that make (or diminish) a nation.

We little appreciate the extent to which Australia has changed these past 20 years. Indigenous people were present in the national policy concerns before then, but always at the margins.

Keating brought indigenous Australians and the challenge of reconciliation to the main table of national priorities.

His recognition that the opportunity provided to the nation by the High Court’s Mabo decision, to make land justice the cornerstone of a new relationship was correct and Keating seized it with great alacrity.

The following year he staunchly defended native title against even his own party, and set up the Indigenous Land Fund to buy land for those groups who were dispossessed of their traditional lands.

Keating made it possible for Australians to imagine a reconciled nation. If the word “reconciliation” is so tired to Australian ears, we need only look the conflict in the Middle East to hear the word afresh in its true imperative meaning. Reconciliation is not just a launch, it’s a journey to a real destination.

On December 10, 1992, the prime minister said some words that started that journey, without which we could never start.

READ: The Australian