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Honouring the Racial Discrimination Act and its architects

Race Race Discrimination
Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane and Chief Justice Robert French

In the year marking the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, Chief Justice Robert French has hailed the Act as a major landmark in Australia’s history and a “well established part of Australia’s human rights architecture”.

The comments were made as part of the inaugural Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture on 22 October 2015.

Chief Justice French honoured the late Kep Enderby QC as a “law reformer” and “dedicated servant of the Australian people”.

“In 1975, as Commonwealth Attorney-General, he introduced into the Parliament the bill that became the Racial Discrimination Act 1975,” he said.

“This evening we celebrate the 40th anniversary of that Act and his life of service.”

Chief Justice French reflected on the enactment and implementation of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) as “one of a number of historic developments in Australian attitudes to race relations generally and Indigenous issues in particular”.

“The Act was a landmark, but it was a landmark in a much larger and changing social, political and legal landscape – and that landscape and the place of the RDA in it must be informed by the history of the change in the 115 years that have passed since Federation,” he said.

Chief Justice French provided an account of the history of race relations in Australia, from restrictions on non-white immigration before Federation and the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, to the Koowarta case and recent tests and applications of the Act in the courts.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane described the Act as “the foundation of racial equality and multiculturalism”.

“It is the law that protects all Australians from racial discrimination, the law that prohibits people from inflicting bigotry onto others,” Commissioner Soutphommasane said.

He said debates over the past two years, and attempts to repeal section 18C, have underlined the significance of the Act.

“In response we have seen widespread community support for the legislation. The attempted repeal of section 18C was rightly abandoned,” he said.

“Earlier this week, the Prime Minister confirmed that the federal government would not revisit the issue of section 18C. This was a welcome demonstration of leadership.

“Legislation exists, after all, to express our values as a society. Sections 18C and 18D of the Act represent our commitment to mutual respect and harmony. They say to all Australians that we should prize not only freedom of speech but also freedom from vilification.”

The Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture is an Australian Human Rights Commission annual public lecture to honour the memory of The Hon. Kep Enderby QC (1926-2015), who as Attorney-General introduced the Racial Discrimination Bill in the House of Representatives on 13 February 1975. The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) came into force on 31 October 1975.

Watch the inaugural Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture