40th Anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act

40TH Anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, Australian Human Rights Commission.
















I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.


I also acknowledge the presence of my parliamentary colleagues, Senator Penny Wong, Michelle Rowland, Senator Penny Wright,  Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Craig Laundy, former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch, former minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister for Social Security, Fred Chaney AO and former Assistant Community Relations Commissioner Reverend James Houston OAM. Importantly, I acknowledge the presence of Professor Gillian Triggs, her colleague and Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, former Race Discrimination Commissioners, Dr Tom Calma AO and Graeme Innes AM, former Human Rights Commissioner and chair of the Australian Multicultural Council, Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM and former Privacy Commissioner Kevin O’Connor AM.


We’re gathered here today to mark the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, which was passed in 1975 in implementation of our international obligations under the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.


Regrettably, after decades as an integral and successful part of Australia’s framework protecting basic human rights, in recent years the Act and the Commission that administers it have come under politically-motivated attacks by the Coalition.


However, tonight, it is important that we remember the long history of the Act and the place it occupies in our national life and in the story of this country.


The Act was passed in the final months of the Whitlam Government in 1975 thanks to the pioneering work of Gough Whitlam and his Attorneys-General, Lionel Murphy and Kep Enderby.


The passage of the Racial Discrimination Act was emblematic of the great social reforms of that era.


For the first time in Australian history, the 1975 Act made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of their race in a whole range of areas, including employment, housing and the provision of goods and services.


The principle which the Act established in our law is fundamental to modern Australia. Every day the Act continues in force, it reinforces a powerful message about the kind of Australia we want – a thriving, tolerant, accepting and respectful multicultural society.


But it had to be fought for. Even after the passage of the Act, it was contested. In 1982, the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland challenged its validity in the High Court in the Koowarta case.


The Commonwealth’s victory in that case confirmed its power to legislate international human rights standards into domestic law, and to bind state governments to those standards. It set the stage for the subsequent Mabo decisions in which the Court held that the Racial Discrimination Act prevented the Queensland Government from extinguishing the native title held by the Meriam people.


As Noel Pearson said so powerfully at Gough Whitlam’s funeral late last year – without the Racial Discrimination Act there would be no Mabo, no Native Title Act. There would have been no redress against the injustice suffered by Aboriginal people robbed of their land.


What’s more, the Racial Discrimination Act set the scene for broader human rights work. It was followed in each of the next three decades by the Sex Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and the Age Discrimination Act.


And the Racial Discrimination Act set the scene for the creation of a national human rights institution, now known as the Australian Human Rights Commission, under whose auspices we meet today.


Most Australians would have thought that the Racial Discrimination Act and the rest of our national human rights framework were now a settled part of Australian governance.


That the principles our human rights laws protect and the institution which upholds them were an accepted part of Australia’s democratic system.

Regrettably, however, the current federal Government has attacked both the substance of our human rights laws and this Commission, the body tasked with upholding those laws.


First, of course, was the Government’s attack on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – an attack that began even before the Abbott Government came to power.


Section 18C was inserted into the Act by the Keating Government in 1994, championed by Attorney-General Michael Lavarch who is in the audience tonight.  For more than twenty years now section 18C has embodied Australia's condemnation of racial vilification, and given some protection to our society from the poisonous effects of hate speech.


Section 18C is a completely appropriate provision, with any potentially adverse effect on freedom of speech constrained by the operation of the extensive protections in its sister provision, section 18D. Section 18C implements Australia’s obligation under international human rights law to prohibit racial hate speech. It has served Australia well, and again, is part of the framework of laws and social norms which have continued to our success as a peaceful, multicultural nation.


The public outcry when the Government sought to repeal this provision showed just how strongly all parts of the Australian community support the Act in its current form. The Government was eventually forced to drop the issue, although some recalcitrant Liberal Senators have persisted with it.


Even more worrying, however, has been the attack on the lynchpin of our human rights framework, the Human Rights Commission itself, and the Commission’s President, Professor Gillian Triggs.


Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Ministers don’t like it when the Commission does exactly what its statute obliges it to do – to hold the Government of the day to the human rights standards Australia has committed itself to.


They don’t like that the Commission is independent, that it is frank and fearless – just as it was designed to be.


They don’t like the scrutiny that is part and parcel of a democratic system committed to the rule of law and the protection of human rights.


And so, when Professor Triggs does nothing more than her job under law, this Government will stop at nothing to silence her.


George Brandis went so far as to secretly direct  the Secretary of his Department to pressure her into resigning.


Quite rightly, Professor Triggs refused. To do so would have been to abandon her responsibility as a statutory office-bearer, and to surrender the independence of the Commission.


The Government should have been embarrassed that this tawdry affair was revealed in Senate Estimates, but they know no shame.


The attacks continue on a daily basis. It is clear that this Government is intent on intimidating and bullying a public official - who has done no more than perform her statutory responsibilities with exemplary professionalism and independence – out of office.


Reflecting on the legacy of the Racial Discrimination Act through four decades of Australian life should remind us just how important our hard won human rights protections are. It should strengthen our resolve to protect them against those who would, even now, tear them down. 


This is symptomatic of a Government that regularly legislates to make incursions in to civil liberties and seeks to avoid public scrutiny in doing so. So at a time when we are celebrating not only the 40th anniversary of the RDA but also the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, we must be forever vigilant of over-reach by the executive and intimidation of those who seek to uphold the rule of law.


I join with you all in celebrating this 40th anniversary and also take the opportunity to thank the Australian Human Rights Commission for its excellent work.