Whose Speech Is It Anyway? Ownership, Authorship, and the Redfern Address





Redfern authorship

How to Cite

Ryder, P., & Foye, J. (2017). Whose Speech Is It Anyway? Ownership, Authorship, and the Redfern Address. M/C Journal, 20(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1228
Vol. 20 No. 5 (2017): history
Published 2017-10-13

In light of an ongoing debate over the authorship of the Redfern address (was it then Prime Minister Paul Keating or his speechwriter, Don Watson, who was responsible for this historic piece?), the authors of this article consider notions of ownership, authorship, and acknowledgement as they relate to the crafting, delivery, and reception of historical political speeches.  There is focus, too, on the often-remarkable partnership that evolves between speechwriters and those who deliver the work. We argue that by drawing on the expertise of an artist or—in the case of the article at hand—speechwriter, collaboration facilitates the ‘translation’ of the politician’s or patron’s vision into a delivered reality. The article therefore proposes that while a speech, perhaps like a commissioned painting or sculpture, may be understood as the product of a highly synergistic collaboration between patron and producer, the power-bearer nonetheless retains essential ‘ownership’ of the material.  This, we argue, is something other than the process of authorship adumbrated above.  

Leaving aside, for the present, the question of ownership, the context in which a speech is written and given may well intensify questions of authorship: the more politically significant or charged the context, the greater the potential impact of a speech and the more at stake in terms of its authorship. In addition to its focus on the latter, this article therefore also reflects on the considerable cultural resonance of the speech in question and, in so doing, assesses its significant impact on Australian reconciliation discourse.  In arriving at our conclusions, we employ a method assemblage approach including analogy, comparison, historical reference, and interview. Comprising a range of investigative modalities such as those employed by us, John Law argues that a “method assemblage” is essentially a triangulated form of primary and secondary research facilitating the interrogation of social phenomena that do not easily yield to more traditional modes of research (Law 7). The approach is all the more relevant to this article since through it an assessment of the speech’s historical significance may be made. In particular, this article extensively compares the collaboration between Keating and Watson to that of United States President John F. Kennedy and Special Counsel and speechwriter Ted Sorensen. As the article reveals, this collaboration produced a number of Kennedy’s historic speeches and was mutually acknowledged as a particularly important relationship. Moreover, because both Sorensen and Watson were also key advisers to the leaders of their respective nations, the comparison is doubly fertile.

On 10 December 1992 then Prime Minister Paul Keating launched the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People by delivering an address now recognised as a landmark in Australian, and even global, oratory. Alan Whiticker, for instance, includes the address in his Speeches That Shaped the Modern World. Following brief instruction from Keating (who was scheduled to give two orations on 10 December), the Prime Minister’s speechwriter and adviser, Don Watson, crafted the speech over the course of one evening. The oration that ensued was history-making: Keating became the first of all who held his office to declare that non-Indigenous Australians had dispossessed Aboriginal people; an unequivocal admission in which the Prime Minister confessed: “we committed the murders” (qtd. in Whiticker 331). The impact of this cannot be overstated. A personal interview with Jennifer Beale, an Indigenous Australian who was among the audience on that historic day, reveals the enormous significance of the address:

I felt the mood of the crowd changed … when Keating said “we took the traditional lands” … . “we committed [the murders]” … [pauses] … I was so amazed to be standing there hearing a Prime Minister saying that… And I felt this sort of wave go over the crowd and they started actually paying attention… I’d never in my life heard … anyone say it like that: we did this, to you… (personal communication, 15 Dec. 2016)

Later in the interview, when recalling a conversation in the Channel Seven newsroom where she formerly worked, Beale recalls a senior reporter saying that, with respect to Aboriginal history, there had been a ‘conservative cover up.’ Given the broader context (her being interviewed by the present authors about the Redfern Address) Beale’s response to that exchange is particularly poignant: “…it’s very rare that I have had these experiences in my life where I have been … [pauses at length] validated… by non-Aboriginal people” (op. cit.).

The speech, then, is a crucial bookend in Australian reconciliation discourse, particularly as an admission of egregious wrongdoing to be addressed (Foye). The responding historical bookend is, of course, Kevin Rudd’s 2008 ‘Apology to the Stolen Generations’. Forming the focal point of the article at hand, the Redfern Address is significant for another reason: that is, as the source of a now historical controversy and very public (and very bitter) falling out between politician and speechwriter.

Following the publication of Watson’s memoir Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Keating denounced the former as having broken an unwritten contract that stipulates the speechwriter has the honour of ‘participating in the endeavour and the power in return for anonymity and confidentiality’ (Keating).  In an opinion piece appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Keating argued that this implied contract is central to the speech-writing process:

This is how political speeches are written, when the rapid business of government demands mass writing. A frequency of speeches that cannot be individually scripted by the political figure or leader giving them… After a pre-draft conference on a speech—canvassing the kind of things I thought we should say and include—unless the actual writing was off the beam, I would give the speech more or less off the printer… All of this only becomes an issue when the speechwriter steps from anonymity to claim particular speeches or words given to a leader or prime minister in the privacy of the workspace. Watson has done this. (Keating)

Upon the release of After Words, a collection of Keating’s post-Prime Ministerial speeches, senior writer for The Australian, George Megalogenis opined that the book served to further Keating’s argument: “Take note, Don Watson; Keating is saying, ‘I can write’” (30). According to Phillip Adams, Keating once bluntly declared “I was in public life for twenty years without Don Watson and did pretty well” (154). On the subject of the partnership’s best-known speech, Keating claims that while Watson no doubt shared the sentiments invoked in the Redfern Address, “in the end, the vector force of the power and what to do with it could only come from me” (Keating).

For his part, Watson has challenged Keating’s claim to being the rightfully acknowledged author of the Redfern Address. In an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A he asserted authorship of the material, listing other famous historical exponents of his profession who had taken credit for their place at the wheel of government: “I suppose I could say that while I was there, really I was responsible for the window boxes in Parliament House but, actually, I was writing speeches as speechwriters do; as Peggy Noonan did for Ronald Reagan; as Graham Freudenberg did for three or four Prime Ministers, and so on…” (Watson). Moreover, as Watson has suggested, a number of prominent speechwriters have gone on to take credit for their work in written memoirs. In an opinion piece in The Australian, Denis Glover observes that: “great speechwriters always write such books and have the good sense to wait until the theatre has closed, as Watson did.” A notable example of this after-the-era approach is Ted Sorensen’s Counselor in which the author nonetheless remains extraordinarily humble—observing that reticence, or ‘a passion for anonymity’, should characterise the posture of the Presidential speechwriter (131).

In Counselor, Sorensen discusses his role as collaborator with Kennedy—likening the relationship between political actor and speechwriter to that between master and apprentice (130). He further observes that, like an apprentice, a speechwriter eventually learns to “[imitate] the style of the master, ultimately assisting him in the execution of the final work of art” (op. cit., 130-131). Unlike Watson’s claim to be the ‘speechwriter’—a ‘master’, of sorts—Sorensen more modestly declares that: “for eleven years, I was an apprentice” (op. cit., 131). At some length Sorensen focuses on this matter of anonymity, and the need to “minimize” his role (op. cit.). Reminiscent of the “unwritten contract” (see above) that Keating declares broken by Watson, Sorensen argues that his “reticence was [and is] the result of an implicit promise that [he] vowed never to break…” (op. cit.). In implying that the ownership of the speeches to which he contributed properly belongs to his President, Sorensen goes on to state that “Kennedy did deeply believe everything I helped write for him, because my writing came from my knowledge of his beliefs” (op. cit. 132). As Herbert Goldhamer observes in The Adviser, this knowing of a leader’s mind is central to the advisory function: “At times the adviser may facilitate the leader’s inner dialogue…” (15). The point is made again in Sorensen’s discussion of his role in the writing of Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. In response to a charge that he [Sorensen] had ghost-written the book, Sorensen confessed that he might have privately boasted of having written much of it. (op. cit., 150)  But he then goes on to observe that “the book’s concept was his [Kennedy’s], and that the selection of stories was his.” (op. cit.). “Like JFK’s speeches”, Sorensen continues, “Profiles in Courage was a collaboration…” (op. cit.).

Later in Counselor, when discussing Kennedy’s inaugural address, it is interesting to note that Sorensen is somewhat less modest about the question of authorship. While the speech was and is ‘owned’ by Kennedy (the President requested its crafting, received it, edited the final product many times, and—with considerable aplomb—delivered it in the cold midday air of 20 January 1961), when discussing the authorship of the text Sorensen refers to the work of Thurston Clarke and Dick Tofel who independently conclude that the speech was a collaborative effort (op. cit. 227). Sorensen notes that while Clarke emphasised the President’s role and Tofel emphasised his own, the matter of who was principal craftsman will—and indeed should—remain forever clouded. To ensure that it will permanently remain so, following a discussion with Kennedy’s widow in 1965, Sorensen destroyed the preliminary manuscript. And, when pressed about the similarities between it and the final product (which he insists was revised many times by the President), he claims not to recall (op. cit. 227). Interestingly, Robert Dallek argues that while ‘suggestions of what to say came from many sources’, ‘the final version [of the speech] came from Kennedy’s hand’ (324). What history does confirm is that both Kennedy and Sorensen saw their work as fundamentally collaborative.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. records Kennedy’s words: “Ted is indispensable to me” (63). In the same volume, Schlesinger observes that the relationship between Sorensen and Kennedy was ‘special’ and that Sorensen felt himself to have a unique facility to know [Kennedy’s] mind and to ‘reproduce his idiom’ (op.cit.). Sorensen himself makes the point that his close friendship with the President made possible the success of the collaboration, and that this “could not later be replicated with someone else with whom [he] did not have that same relationship” (131). He refers, of course, to Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy’s choice of advisers (including Sorensen as Special Counsel) was, then, crucial—although he never ceded to Sorensen sole responsibility for all speechwriting. Indeed, as we shortly discuss, at critical junctures the President involved others (including Schlesinger, Richard Goodwin, and Myer Feldman) in the process of speech-craft and, on delivery day, sometimes departed from the scripts proffered.

As was the case with Keating’s, creative tension characterised Kennedy’s administration. Schlesinger Jr. notes that it was an approach practiced early, in Kennedy’s strategy of keeping separate his groups of friends (71). During his Presidency, this fostering of creative tension extended to the drafting of speeches. In a special issue of Time, David von Drehle notes that the ‘Peace’ speech given 10 June 1963 was “prepared by a tight circle of advisers” (97). Still, even here, Sorensen’s role remained pivotal. One of those who worked on that speech (commonly regarded as Kennedy’s finest) was William Forster, Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. As indicated by the conditional “I think” in “Ted Sorensen, I think, sat up all night…”, Forster somewhat reluctantly concedes that while a group was involved, Sorensen’s contribution was central: “[Sorensen], with his remarkable ability to polish and write, was able to send each of us and the President the final draft about six or seven in the morning…” (op. cit.).

In most cases, however, it fell on Sorensen alone to craft the President’s speeches. While Sorenson’s mind surely ‘rolled in unison’ with Kennedy’s (Schlesinger Jr. 597), and while Sorensen’s words dominated the texts, the President would nonetheless annotate scripts, excising redundant material and adding sentences. In the case of less formal orations, the President was capable of all but abandoning the script (a notable example was his October 1961 oration to mark the publication of the first four volumes of the John Quincy Adams papers) but for orations of national or international significance there remained a sense of careful collaboration between Kennedy and Sorensen.  Yet, even in such cases, the President’s sense of occasion sometimes encouraged him to set aside his notes.  As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observes, Kennedy had an instinctive feel for language and often “spoke extemporaneously” (op. cit.). The most memorable example, of course, is the 1961 speech in Berlin where Kennedy (appalled by the erection of the Berlin Wall, and angry over the East’s churlish covering of the Brandenburg Gate) went “off-script and into dangerous diplomatic waters” (Tubridy 85).  But the risky departure paid off in the form of a TKO against Chairman Khrushchev. In late 1960, following two independent phone calls concerning the incarceration of Martin Luther King, Kennedy had remarked to John Galbraith that “the best strategies are always accidental”—an approach that appears to have found its way into his formal rhetoric (Schlesinger Jr. 67).

Ryan Tubridy, author of JFK in Ireland, observes that “while the original draft of the Berlin Wall speech had been geared to a sense of appeasement that acknowledged the Wall’s presence as something the West might have to accept, the ad libs suggested otherwise” (85). Referencing Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s account of the delivery, Tubridy notes that the President’s aides observed the orator’s rising emotion—especially when departing from the script as written:

There are some who say that Communism is the way of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists.  Let them come to Berlin … Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put up a wall to keep our people in.

That the speech defined Kennedy’s presidency even more than did his inaugural address is widely agreed, and the President’s assertion “Ich bin ein Berliner” is one that has lived on now for over fifty years.  The phrase was not part of the original script, but an addition included at the President’s request by Kennedy’s translator Robert Lochner.

While this phrase and the various additional departures from the original script ‘make’ the speech, they are nonetheless part of a collaborative whole the nature of which we adumbrate above. Furthermore, it is a mark of the collaboration between speechwriter and speech-giver that on Air Force One, as they flew from West Germany to Ireland, Kennedy told Sorensen: “We’ll never have another day like this as long as we live” (op. cit. 88; Dallek 625). The speech, then, was a remarkable joint enterprise—and (at least privately) was acknowledged as such.

It seems unlikely that Keating will ever (even semi-publicly) acknowledge the tremendous importance of Watson to his Prime Ministership.  There seems not to have been a ‘Don is indispensable to me’ moment, but according to the latter the former Prime Minister did offer such sentiment in private. In an unguarded moment, Keating allegedly said that Watson would “be able to say that [he, Watson, was] the puppet master for the biggest puppet in the land” (Watson  290). If this comment was indeed offered, then Keating, much like Kennedy, (at least once) privately acknowledged the significant role that his speechwriter played in his administration.  Watson, for his part, was less reticent. On the ABC’s Q&A of 29 August 2011 he assessed the relationship as being akin to a [then] “requited” love. Of course, above and beyond private or public acknowledgement of collaboration is tangible evidence of such: minuted meetings between speechwriter and speech-giver and instructions to the speechwriter that appear, for example, in a politician’s own hand. Perhaps more importantly, the stamp of ownership on a speech can be signalled by marginalia concerning delivery and in the context of the delivery itself: the engagement of emphases, pause, and the various paralinguistic phenomena that can add so much character to—and very much define—a written text.  By way of example we reference again the unique and impassioned delivery of the Berlin speech, above.  And beyond this again, as also suggested, are the non-written departures from a script that further put the stamp of ownership on an oration. 

In the case of Kennedy, it is easy to trace such marginalia and resultant departures from scripted material but there is little evidence that Keating either extensively annotated or extemporaneously departed from the script in question.  However, as Tom Clark points out, while there are very few changes to Watson’s words there are fairly numerous “annotations that mark up timing, emphasis, and phrase coherence.” Clark points out that Keating had a relatively systematic notational schema “to guide him in the speech performance” (op. cit.). In engaging a musical analogy (an assemblage device that we ourselves employ), he opines that these scorings, “suggest a powerful sense of fidelity to the manuscript as authoritative composition” (op. cit.). While this is so, we argue—and one can easily conceive Keating arguing—that they are also marks of textual ownership; the former Prime Minister’s ‘signature’ on the piece. This is a point to which we return. For now, we note that matters of stress, rhythm, intonation, gesture, and body language are crucial to the delivery of a speech and reaffirm the point that it is in its delivery that an adroitly rendered text might come to life. As Sorensen (2008) reflects:

I do not dismiss the potential of the right speech on the right topic delivered by the right speaker in the right way at the right moment. It can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world.  I know. I saw it happen. (143)

We argue that it is in its delivery to (and acceptance by) the patron and in its subsequent delivery by the patron to an audience that a previously written speech (co-authored, or not) may be ‘owned’. As we have seen, with respect to questions of authorship or craftsmanship, analogies (another device of method assemblage) with the visual and musical arts are not uncommon—and we here offer another: a reference to the architectural arts. When a client briefs an architect, the architect must interpret the client’s vision. Once the blueprints are passed to the client and are approved, the client takes ownership of work that has been, in a sense, co-authored. Ownership and authorship are not the same, then, and we suggest that it is the interstices that the tensions between Keating and Watson truly lie.

In crafting the Redfern address, there is little doubt that Watson’s mind rolled in unison with the Prime Minister’s: invisible, intuited ‘evidence’ of a fruitful collaboration.  As the former Prime Minister puts it: “Watson and I actually write in very similar ways. He is a prettier writer than I am, but not a more pungent one. So, after a pre-draft conference on a speech—canvassing the kind of things I thought we should say and include—unless the actual writing was off the beam, I would give the speech more or less off the printer” (Keating). As one of the present authors has elsewhere observed, “Watson sensed the Prime Minister’s mood and anticipated his language and even the pattern of his voice” (Foye 19). Here, there are shades of the Kennedy/Sorensen partnership. As Schlesinger Jr. observes, Kennedy and Sorensen worked so closely together that it became impossible to know which of them “originated the device of staccato phrases … or the use of balanced sentences … their styles had fused into one” (598). Moreover, in responding to a Sunday Herald poll asking readers to name Australia’s great orators, Denise Davies remarked, “Watson wrote the way Keating thought and spoke” (qtd. in Dale 46). Despite an uncompromising, pungent, title—‘On that historic day in Redfern, the words I spoke were mine’—Keating’s SMH op-ed of 26 August 2010 nonetheless offers a number of insights vis-a-vis the collaboration between speechwriter and speech-giver. To Keating’s mind (and here we might reflect on Sorensen’s observation about knowing the beliefs of the patron), the inspiration for the Prime Minister’s Redfern Address came from conversations between he and Watson.

Keating relates an instance when, on a flight crossing outback Western Australia, he told Watson that “we will never really get Australia right until we come to terms with them (Keating).” “Them”, Keating explains, refers to Aborigines. Keating goes on to suggest that by “come to terms”, he meant “owning up to dispossession” (op. cit.)—which is precisely what he did, to everyone’s great surprise, in the speech itself. Keating observes:  

I remember well talking to Watson a number of times about stories told to me through families [he] knew, of putting “dampers” out for Aborigines. The dampers were hampers of poisoned food provided only to murder them. I used to say to Watson that this stuff had to be owned up to. And it was me who established the inquiry into the Stolen Generation that Kevin Rudd apologised to. The generation who were taken from their mothers.

So, the sentiments that “we did the dispossessing … we brought the diseases, the alcohol, that we committed the murders and took the children from their mothers” were my sentiments. P.J. Keating’s sentiments. They may have been Watson’s sentiments also. But they were sentiments provided to a speechwriter as a remit, as an instruction, as guidance as to how this subject should be dealt with in a literary way. (op. cit.)

While such conversations might not accurately be called “guidance” (something more consciously offered as such) or “instruction” (as Keating declares), they nonetheless offer to the speechwriter a sense of the trajectory of a leader’s thoughts and sentiments.  As Keating puts it, “the sentiments of the speech, that is, the core of its authority and authorship, were mine” (op. cit.). As does Sorensen, Keating argues that that such revelation is a source of “power to the speechwriter” (op. cit.). This he buttresses with more down to earth language: conversations of this nature are “meat and drink”, “the guidance from which the authority and authorship of the speech ultimately derives” (op. cit.). Here, Keating gets close to what may be concluded: while authorship might, to a significant extent, be contingent on the kind of interaction described, ownership is absolutely contingent on authority. As Keating asserts, “in the end, the vector force of the power and what to do with it could only come from me” (op. cit.). In other words, no Prime Minister with the right sentiments and the courage to deliver them publicly (i.e. Keating), no speech.

On the other hand, we also argue that Watson’s part in crafting the Redfern Address should not be downplayed, requiring (as the speech did) his unique writing style—called “prettier” by the former Prime Minister. More importantly, we argue that the speech contains a point of view that may be attributed to Watson more than Keating’s description of the speechwriting process might suggest. In particular, the Redfern Address invoked a particular interpretation of Australian history that can be attributed to Watson, whose manuscript Keating accepted. Historian Manning Clark had an undeniable impact on Watson’s thinking and thus the development of the Redfern address. Per Keating’s claim that he himself had “only read bits and pieces of Manning’s histories” (Curran 285), the basis for this link is actual and direct: Keating hired Clark devotee Watson as a major speech writer on the same day that Clark died in 1991 (McKenna 71). McKenna’s examination of Clark’s history reveals striking similarities with the rhetoric at the heart of the Redfern address. For example, in his 1988 essay The Beginning of Wisdom, Clark (in McKenna) announces:

Now we are beginning to take the blinkers off our eyes. Now we are ready to face the truth about our past, to acknowledge that the coming of the British was the occasion of three great evils: the violence against the original inhabitants of the of the country, the Aborigines, the violence against the first European labour force in Australia, the convicts and the violence done to the land itself. (71)

As the above quote demonstrates, echoes of Clark’s denouncement of Australia’s past are evident in the Redfern Address’ rhetoric. While Keating is correct to suggest that Watson and he shared the sentiments behind the Address, it may be said that it took Watson—steeped as he was in Clark’s understanding of history and operating closely as he did with the Prime Minister—to craft the Redfern Address. Notwithstanding the concept of ownership, Keating’s claim that the “vector force” for the speech could only come from him unreasonably diminishes Watson’s role.


This article has considered the question of authorship surrounding the 1992 Redfern Address, particularly in view of the collaborative nature of speechwriting. The article has also drawn on the analogous relationship between President Kennedy and his Counsel, Ted Sorensen—an association that produced historic speeches. Here, the process of speechwriting has been demonstrated to be a synergistic collaboration between speechwriter and speech-giver; a working partnership in which the former translates the vision of the latter into words that, if delivered appropriately, capture audience attention and sympathy. At its best, this collaborative relationship sees the emergence of a synergy so complete that it is impossible to discern who wrote what (exactly). While the speech carries the imprimatur and original vision of the patron/public actor, this originator nonetheless requires the expertise of one (or more) who might give shape, clarity, and colour to what might amount to mere instructive gesture—informed, in the cases of Sorensen and Watson, by years of conversation. While ‘ownership’ of a speech then ultimately rests with the power-bearer (Keating requested, received, lightly edited, ‘scored’, and delivered—with some minor ad libbing, toward the end—the Redfern text), the authors of this article consider neither Keating nor Watson to be the major scribe of the Redfern Address. Indeed, it was a distinguished collaboration between these figures that produced the speech: a cooperative undertaking similar to the process of writing this article itself. Moreover, because an Australian Prime Minister brought the plight of Indigenous Australians to the attention of their non-Indigenous counterparts, the address is seminal in Australian history. It is, furthermore, an exquisitely crafted document. And it was also delivered with style. As such, the Redfern Address is memorable in ways similar to Kennedy’s inaugural, Berlin, and Peace speeches: all products of exquisite collaboration and, with respect to ownership, emblems of rare leadership.


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Author Biographies

Paul Ryder, University of New South Wales

Paul Ryder is a strategist and researcher in Media at the University of New South Wales where he teaches commercial, advertising, political, and communication strategy. 

Jonathan Foye, UNSW

Jonathan Foye is a freelance journalist. He tutors in Communications subjects at UNSW. Jonathan completed his PhD in Communications in 2006.