Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner
Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture
Sydney, 12 June 2018
Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
The Hon. Susan Ryan AO
The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG
Keir and Rosemary Enderby
Uncle Charles Madden
Our special guest and lecturer tonight, Professor Marcia Langton AM
Welcome to the Fourth Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture. This is an annual lecture held by the Australian Human Rights Commission to advance public understanding of racism and the Racial Discrimination Act.
The lecture bears the name of Kep Enderby, who as Attorney-General in 1975, introduced the bill that would become the Racial Discrimination Act, the Commonwealth law that is Australian society’s official statement against racial discrimination.
Tonight we gather to reflect on the state of our race relations. We do so with auspicious timing. It was in June 1975 that the Parliament passed the Racial Discrimination Bill, and on 11 June 1975 that the Racial Discrimination Act received royal assent.
In a moment, I would like to say a little more about Kep Enderby and introduce this year’s Lecturer, Professor Marcia Langton. But first, I would like to invite Uncle Charles (Chicka) Madden to offer a welcome to country.
[Welcome to country]
Thank you, Uncle Charles, for welcoming us to Gadigal land. I would like to pay my respects to you and Gadigal elders, past and present.
Before I introduce Marcia Langton, I would like to make a presentation – namely, to announce the winner of my annual Student Prize. For the past three years, we have run a national competition for high school students in years 10 and 11, in order to promote research and discussion about racism among young people.
The winning entrant this year reflected on the issue of responsibility: who must bear the responsibility of fighting racism? She submitted via video a piece of free verse, delivered in a slam-poem style. It was a passionate and compelling poem, written with verve and originality. Let me quote some parts from the entry:
The powerful think it’s their right to … ask a victim to fight for their own human right to equality, when rights should be the responsibility of us all of us to protect and uphold …
It’s the spectrum of skin tones that colour the earth, for we will realise the reality of our common humanity, when together and only together we’ll bear this burden of our forebears on the shoulders of society. Authorities and minorities from all walks of humanity saying, “Take my hand and stand up. Take a stand, and offer someone your hand.”
The author of those words is Emma Tam, a year 11 student at Pembroke School in Kensington Park, Adelaide. Emma is here tonight and I would like to invite her now to come forward to receive her prize.
[Presentation of prize]
Congratulations, Emma. And our thanks to Dymocks bookstore, which has generously supported the prize since its inception.
Tonight, we honour the memory of Kep Enderby and his contribution to human rights and racial equality. Kep Enderby was Attorney-General in the Whitlam Government for only nine months in 1975. 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.
We are honoured to have with us Keir Enderby, Kep’s son. Keir, it is wonderful to have you and Rosemary here again; your support makes this lecture special every year.
I never had the good fortune of meeting Kep, but I did have one conversation with him on the telephone. It was late 2014. When I introduced myself to him as the Race Discrimination Commissioner, he responded in a soft voice, ‘What have I done?’ I assured him that he was not in any trouble.
What Kep Enderby did do, was succeed where his predecessors did not.
When in 1975, Enderby introduced a bill on racial discrimination, there had been three previous unsuccessful or lapsed bills. There was intense parliamentary debate, and the bill was met with scepticism from many Opposition members.
If we return to 1975, we hear a voice determined to ensure that such sceptics would not prevail. Kep Enderby rejected suggestions that the Act would worsen racial tensions. Rather, it was vital that there be legislation that would ‘express the feelings of a civilised society’. Anticipating that the bill, if passed, would end up being challenged in the High Court, Enderby would also say, ‘I hope that it survives … because it is very badly needed in Australia’.
Well, the bill did pass. The Act did find its way to the High Court. The Act did survive. And the Act remains much needed even today, some 43 years on from its introduction.
Throughout its history, the Act has had to contend with challenges to its existence and its integrity. During the past five years, we have had two attempts to change section 18C of the Act. The first attempt in 2014 was abandoned, after widespread public opposition. The second attempt ended with a defeated bill in 2017 on the floor of the Senate. Through all the contests and debates, our community has been clear that it believes the Racial Discrimination Act must be here to stay.
There has been no prouder achievement for me during these past five years than to stand alongside First Peoples, countless ethnic communities, and the multitudes of Australians of goodwill to defend the Racial Discrimination Act. As I conclude my term as Commissioner, I want to say thank you to all those who have stood up for racial tolerance and equality. And those who may desire revisiting section 18C or changing any part of the Racial Discrimination Act should know this: the multicultural mainstream of Australian society will not stand for any weakening of our legal protections against racial discrimination.
As for the rest of us, we must also know this: the legislation, on its own, cannot do all of the work of fighting racial discrimination. The cause of racial equality requires staunch and vigorous defenders of the Racial Discrimination Act. And it demands fierce and fearless advocates, who are prepared to speak truth to power.
Well, tonight, I am proud to introduce to you someone who has been fierce and fearless in her advocacy, and staunch and vigorous in her defence of racial equality.
Professor Marcia Langton AM is an anthropologist and geographer, and a descendant of the fighting Yiman people in Queensland. Since 2000 has held the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, and in 2017 she was appointed as the first Associate Provost at the University of Melbourne.
Professor Langton has made significant contributions to scholarship in political and legal anthropology, as well as Indigenous culture and art. She was a member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, and in 2012 delivered the Boyer Lectures for the ABC, titled ‘The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom’. In 2016, Professor Langton was honoured as a University of Melbourne Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor. She is the author of Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia, published last month.
Professor Marcia Langton is one of Australia’s pre-eminent scholars and public intellectuals. At a time when we are grappling with questions about the direction of Indigenous reconciliation, and with the rise of extremism and racial supremacism, I can think of few better qualified than her to help guide us with clarity.
Marcia, thank you for being with us tonight. It gives me great pleasure to invite you to deliver the fourth Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture.