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Introductory remarks at the 2nd Annual Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture

Race Race Discrimination

Speech given at the 2nd Annual Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture, University of Technology Sydney

Next Monday, 31 October, we will mark the 41st anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act coming into effect.

The Act is Australian society’s official statement against racial discrimination. It has been the foundation of racial equality and the legislative expression of Australian multiculturalism.

We are getting in on the birthday a few days early. Tonight we reflect upon the state of our race relations and honour the memory of Kep Enderby, who as Attorney-General in 1975, introduced the bill that would become the Racial Discrimination Act.

In a moment, I would like to say a little more about Kep Enderby and introduce this year’s Lecturer, David Morrison. Before I do, I would like to invite Uncle Charles (Chicka) Madden to offer a formal welcome to country.

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When we talk about matters of race, we are often guided by the future – by our aspiration for the kind of society we would like Australia to be. One where race, colour or ethnicity have no effect in determining how far we get in life, or the opportunities we receive. One where people of all different backgrounds can live together in harmony, guided by respect, united as Australians.

Combating racism is about education – in the broadest sense. And if we are serious about education, it must include our children and youth. That’s why, earlier this year, I established a Student Prize for young people in Years 10 and 11. The Prize competition invited students across the country to submit an essay or speech, reflecting on the question of racism in Australian society.

Tonight, I’m delighted to announce the winner of our inaugural Student Prize. The winner is a Year 11 student from Maribyrnong College, in Melbourne, Mohamed Semra. Mohamed submitted an essay about his experience growing up in Sudan and in Melbourne. It’s an excellent essay, containing personal reflection, but also a mature depth of understanding. Let me read to you some of Mohamed’s essay entry:

By knowing one another and reaching out to minorities, we can eradicate ignorance with love and respect. By understanding a person who is different to us, we can come to terms with our pride and open a gateway to unity. Yet sometimes overcoming these assumptions is difficult because often entwining ignorance is fear. It strikes at the foundation of prejudice, and lies at the heart of 'privilege and power'. … Being afraid of the unknown will only lead us into isolation, in accepting one another can we move forward. … it is human nature to categorise, and prejudge, but in the end we need to make a choice to move beyond this, for ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hate. Only with love, respect and kindness can the cycle of discrimination finally end.

Reading those words, I reflected on what Kep Enderby said more than forty years ago. The task of having a law against racial discrimination was about making ‘people more aware of the evils, the undesirable and unsociable consequences of discrimination – the hurtful consequences of discrimination – and make them more obvious and conspicuous’. As Kep continued, there was an ‘educative role’ for any law – one about educating attitudes and sentiments.

Kep Enderby was Attorney-General in the Whitlam Government for only nine months. Yet he was responsible for driving some of that Government's most significant reforms: the creation of no-fault divorce in family law; the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality in the territories; and, of course, the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act.

I never had the good fortune of meeting Kep, but I do want to share with you the one conversation we had. It was in late 2014 and we spoke briefly on the telephone. We proceeded to have a conversation about the Act and I told him that we were approaching the Act’s 40th anniversary. What struck me in that conversation was the modesty and generosity of the man. Kep said that if there were to be credit attributed for the Act, it should go not to him but to his other colleagues.

Kep was a modest man, but a man of many talents. Kep was a lawyer, legislator, and judge; he was also an avid linguist and an accomplished golfer (who once led the British Open as an amateur). It was fitting that a man of such talent was responsible for ensuring the passage of a Racial Discrimination Bill. For it took four attempts in Parliament to bring this law into being: Kep’s predecessor Lionel Murphy had three unsuccessful attempts.

As ongoing debates demonstrate, there has been intense public interest in the Racial Discrimination Act. Against such a backdrop, it is important that we have occasions to pause and reflect on how we should understand matters of racism. That we have intelligent discourse on what can be a contentious issue.

We are delighted and honoured this year to have as this year’s Kep Enderby Lecturer, David Morrison, Australian of the Year 2016. David needs little introduction. Most of you will know of his 36-year career in the Australian Army, which culminated in his tenure as Chief of Army from 2011-2015. During that time, David took a strong stance on gender equality and was internationally recognized as a leader of cultural change. His speech to members of the Army, which went viral and attracted international attention, was responsible for introducing to our lexicon, the idea that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

Since retiring from the Australian Defence Force, David has been the Chair of the Diversity Council Australia and has been a prominent champion for diversity. He is an inspirational leader, a passionate advocate, an eloquent voice for change. We are proud to have him as our Kep Enderby Memorial Lecturer this year.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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