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Why the Racial Discrimination Act was a critical turning point in Australia's history

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 15 Jun 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:24):  I rise to contribute to this motion on the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act in June 1975. The enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act was a critical turning point in Australia's history because of the role it played in signposting Australia's commitment to protecting and promoting what were internationally recognised and universal human rights. The Racial Discrimination Act was the first time that Australia had directly incorporated the language of an international human rights treaty into our domestic law. This was then upheld by the seminal High Court Koowarta case, which confirmed that the Commonwealth has external affairs powers that can be in the Constitution that can be used to implement our international obligations in domestic legislation. That decision then paved the way for other seminal legislation to protect against discrimination on other grounds such as gender, disability or age. Without those developments, it is unlikely that we would then have had the other nation-defining High Court decisions such as the Tasmanian dams case or the Mabo case.

It is true to say that the Racial Discrimination Act did not have an easy birth. There were strong debates about whether Australia needed laws to protect against racism, even arguments that suggested that if racism existed in Australia it should be valued as a type of character-building experience for minorities. But pass it did, and now, here, 40 years on, the Racial Discrimination Act still raises controversy and strong opinions, as we have seen in relation to attempts to remove or amend provisions such as section 18C. The principles of equality, fairness and respect for human rights embodied in the Racial Discrimination Act still require vigilant defence and protection. So, along with many others around Australia, I have strongly defended the current version of section 18C. I have been motivated by the many Australians who have shared with me their very personal stories of racial abuse and discrimination, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, but often devastating in its impacts, and not defensible. I have also been motivated by the many, many Australians who see section 18C as part of a broader legal and moral commitment to racial equality and respect that speaks about who we are and what we stand for as a people.

So it is that we must use these people and their voices to inspire us. The Greens will continue to speak out and amplify those voices in our parliament. In particular, we will remain vigilant defenders of the Racial Discrimination Act. We will be open to ways to improve its effectiveness, but we will always be guarding against any moves that would risk eroding the protections that it provides.

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