Date: 
Thursday 19 February 2015

Australian Human Rights Commission President Professor Gillian Triggs; Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane; His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC; and New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.

Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove says the principles behind the Racial Discrimination Act ought to be celebrated now more than ever.

In delivering the keynote address at the RDA@40 Conference in Sydney today, the Governor-General said the Racial Discrimination Act was “one of the most significant pieces of legislation affecting Australian civil society”.

“There is no justification for excluding, limiting, singling out, vilifying people on the basis of their looks, their language, their culture or their beliefs, or discredited theories or stereotypical notions of race,” the Governor-General said.

“When we find ourselves threatened on home ground by forces of radical extremism, we are tested not to default to old and harmful reactionary norms.

“Once again, we have an opportunity now to grow and learn through the current tumult here and around the world, and to apply the principles and lessons of democracy to reach a new state of stability and adaptability. Our Racial Discrimination Act remains a crucial enabler.”

The Governor-General said the Racial Discrimination Act provided an “official voice on racism in the Australian community, a voice that speaks in tones of empowerment, not reprimand, one that seeks to educate and unite”.

“Its authors, advocates and early administrators foresaw its critical role in guiding a maturing nation,” the Governor-General said.

“They were among the pioneers of Australian human rights law for whom we can be forever grateful for their unapologetic insistence on the formal recognition of dignity, respect, equality and freedom as fundamental human liberties.

“We still need energetic, values driven human rights specialists because the mechanisms central to the Racial Discrimination Act are not, and cannot be, static. They must have the ability to intelligently read and respond to changes in Australian society and attitudes.”

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane said the two day conference celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act.

“We are delighted to have at this conference some of Australia’s leading authorities on human rights, public law and multiculturalism,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

The Racial Discrimination Act is a landmark piece of legislation. It was the first human rights and anti-discrimination legislation introduced by the Commonwealth Parliament, and was instrumental in securing land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“The legislation sets a standard for how we live together. It expresses our community’s aspiration for fairness and justice,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

“The Racial Discrimination Act exists to protect all Australians against racial discrimination and vilification. Over the past 40 years, it has been used to resolve more than 6,000 complaints of discrimination.”

The RDA@40 Conference is exploring the history of the Racial Discrimination Act and its evolution over the past four decades, questions about racial vilification and free speech, the emerging challenge of cyber racism and the systemic impact of the Act in eliminating racial discrimination.

Speakers include Professor George Williams (University of NSW), Professor Hilary Charlesworth (Australian National University), Professor Simon Rice (Australian National University), and Professor Marcia Langton (University of Melbourne).