Where were you when the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) turned 40?

| March 16, 2015

Did you know that the Racial Discrimination Act has just celebrated its 40th birthday? Polly Chester explains why the Act is so important and why it needs a new publicity campaign. 

Do you remember what you were doing on the 13th of February 2015? Perhaps you were preparing your letterbox and doorstep for the piles of cards and mountains of flowers that were due to arrive at your place on Valentine’s Day? Or perhaps you were thinking about superstitious, Friday-the-thirteenth-y sort of things? Going out of your way not to break any mirrors and throwing handfuls of salt over your shoulders?

In case you were wondering, I was at work. I did throw a handful of salt over my shoulder at one point, and it landed in my office buddy’s lunch; she certainly felt the unlucky effects of Friday the 13th. Over a month later, I have found that there were far more important things happening on the 13th of February 2015 – things that I hadn’t known about at the time.

It was the day that the Racial Discrimination Act turned 40.

I found this out during early March; I received an invitation to a public discussion forum entitled “Community Consultation: 40 Years of the Racial Discrimination Act” to be held at the Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland on the 26th of March. Until then, I’d had no idea that the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) had just celebrated its 40th birthday.

There will be a forum held in every state. The intention of these forums is to provide a platform for the promotion of understanding about how we can most effectively advocate on issues of racial discrimination. The fruit of these discussions will assist in informing a publication that Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane will be releasing later in 2015.

Feeling embarrassed at having overlooked the anniversary and wondering how I’d missed it, I searched the internet for any news items about it. Sadly there was a paucity of commentary, other than this excellent piece written by Dr. Soutphommasane himself, which was published ten days later.

In order to amend the oversight of this anniversary, I suppose it’s necessary to firstly accept why it was ignored and secondly, propose a solution to stop it from happening again.

The ‘why’ component of this equation seems obvious. Australians have elected politicians who don’t have much of an interest in human rights. Some of these politicians don’t like the limitations imposed by the Racial Discrimination Act – limitations that serve to protect people – and they are far more turned on by the idea of gutting sections such as 18C, so that individuals who wish to pedal bigoted, offensive ideals are free to do so.

Furthermore, our political leaders can’t get a handle on acting humanely toward Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The horrendous over-representation of Indigenous peoples in custody is well documented, and the Prime Minister’s recent assertion that Aboriginal people living in remote communities are making a ‘lifestyle choice’ is morally reprehensible. Such a statement is an extension of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from country that has occurred since colonisation. Prime Minister Abbott’s stalwart defence of his statement is really hard to swallow, because what we have on our hands is a ‘leader’ who thinks that discrimination is ok, and what we know for sure is that discrimination is fuelled by fear and ignorance.

Lately I’ve noticed that the most effective racial discrimination campaigns (such as #illridewithyou) have been launched by members of the public, then carried and spread by other members of the public whose collective social conscience is fused with an unequivocal yearning for equal rights. #illridewithyou was not a consequence of our effective Racial Discrimination Act. That campaign was in spite of it.

Perhaps the solution to the conundrum of how we remember this anniversary lies within something that comes up every year on the 26th of January – the anniversary of the date that Australia was colonised by the British.

In its current state, Australia Day has never been, and never will be socially inclusive. If we paired the day we celebrate being Australian with the anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act and made Australia Day to the 13th of February, it would be a poignant reminder to anyone whose families arrived in Australia with or since the First Fleet that we are all immigrants, or descendants of immigrants. The least we can do to demonstrate respect to the traditional custodians of Australia is to live peacefully alongside all peoples of different race, culture and ethnicity.

I would hope that the general oversight of this anniversary is not the barometer for how much Australians care about issues of racial discrimination. But the fact is that we live in a society where antiquated attitudes still exist on the socially constructed issue of race, which is exactly why the Act is so important, and why it needs a new publicity campaign.