It was at the Terowie railway station north of Adelaide in South Australia that General Douglas MacArthur declared, “I came through and I shall return,” on March 20, 1942.
Well, the same week that Australia started allowing vaccinated foreigners back into the country, Facebook started spitting back images from my trip with Professional Speechwriters Association COO Benjamine Knight in February 2019, to put on the happy first of what we expected to be regular Asia-Pacific Speechwriters Conferences, in Sydney.
Many wonderful things happened that sunny week, none more memorable than when I introduced our keynote speaker, the legendary Australian speechwriter Don Watson.
I’d known that name forever. Watson was author of one of Australia’s most famous speeches, delivered 30 years ago this year, by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating. What would become known as the Redfern Speech was a cultural watershed in the story of the continent’s colonization, when Keating, on behalf of the Europeans, stood up and took direct responsibility.
And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.
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.
With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.
Every politically and culturally aware Australian knows this speech.
So why did I see a tear in its writer’s eye during my introduction, and see him struggle to regain his composure as he shook my hand and took over the lectern? Because I played a clip of the speech, which Watson astonishingly had never seen. He hadn’t accompanied Keating to the event that day in December 1992. So he hadn’t seen how the speech had hushed the aborigine crowd, who were playing the didgeridoo and paying Keating little mind—until he got to those then-astonishing lines.
Watson written the speech, and but not accompanied Keating to the event. In the delivery, Keating—a real orator—had made the speech even more dramatic in the delivery than Watson intended.
Over the years, Watson had understood the impact of the speech intellectually.
But somehow, he hadn’t felt it himself—hadn’t felt it as the audience felt it, on the day—the sound of the shifting of the Australian Plate.
And he did now, as he prepared to receive the adulation of a new generation of Australian speechwriters, and share his wisdom with them.
He quickly pulled himself together and gave a witty and warm talk that pleased everyone, already flattered by his presence alone. But I sat there fairly reeling. With the crucial and inventive help of my close pal Lucinda Holdforth, I’d moved heaven and earth to make Watson our first keynote. And the event had moved him!
And on either side of the conference, there were sun-kissed late-summer Sydney days that caused me to instruct my Stateside friends to eat their hearts out.
Conference-planning lead times being what they are, it may be 2024 before we can schedule, program, market and stage our next Asia-Pacific Speechwriters Conference.
But to paraphrase MacArthur, Benjamine and I say today: We have been through, and we shall return.