. Racial Discrimination Act 1975: Protecting Diversity and Equality in Australia

Racial Discrimination Act 1975: Protecting Diversity and Equality in Australia

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Racial Discrimination Act 1975: Protecting Diversity and Equality in Australia

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is a cornerstone of Australian law that marks a significant step towards promoting equality and protecting individuals from racial discrimination. Enacted on June 11, 1975, by the Whitlam government, this Act aims to make racial discrimination unlawful in various contexts and supersedes state and territory legislation where inconsistencies arise.

Overview and Administration

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is administered by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The AHRC president is tasked with investigating complaints related to racial discrimination. Upon validation of a complaint, the commission attempts conciliation between the parties involved. If conciliation fails, the complainant's only recourse is through the Federal Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. The AHRC also works to raise awareness about individuals' and organizations' obligations under the Act.

Prohibition of Racial Discrimination

The Act defines racial discrimination as treating someone less favorably than another person in a similar situation because of their race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin. It also covers indirect discrimination where a policy or rule, while appearing neutral, disproportionately affects people of a certain race or ethnic group.

Key areas where racial discrimination is prohibited include:

  • Employment (Section 15): Discrimination in hiring, training, promotion, pay, or conditions of employment is unlawful.
  • Land, Housing, or Accommodation (Section 12): Discrimination in buying or renting properties is prohibited.
  • Provision of Goods and Services (Section 13): This includes buying goods, applying for credit, using banks, or seeking assistance from government departments, lawyers, doctors, and hospitals.
  • Access to Public Places and Facilities (Section 11): Public parks, libraries, government offices, hotels, places of worship, and entertainment centers must be accessible without discrimination.
  • Advertising (Section 16): It is illegal to advertise jobs or services in a way that excludes certain ethnic groups.
  • Joining a Trade Union (Section 14): Discrimination in union membership is prohibited.

Notable Cases

Several landmark cases highlight the Act's impact:

  • Bligh and Ors v State of Queensland [1996]: Aboriginal applicants who were underpaid on Great Palm Island Aboriginal reserve received compensation of A$7,000 each.
  • Wotton v Queensland (No 5) [2016]: Following police raids on Palm Island after a community riot, the actions were found to breach the Act, resulting in a $220,000 damages award. A subsequent class action settlement awarded $30 million and a formal apology from the Queensland Government.

Section 18C: Protecting Against Racial Vilification

Section 18C of the Act makes it unlawful to publicly offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate a person based on race, color, or national or ethnic origin. The courts have clarified that for speech to fall under 18C, it must have "profound and serious effects" beyond mere slights.

Exemptions and Notable Cases Under Section 18C

Section 18D provides exemptions for artistic works, genuine academic or scientific purposes, fair reporting, and fair comment on public interest matters. Significant cases include:

  • Bryant v Queensland Newspaper Pty Ltd [1997]: Use of the terms "Pom" and "Pommy" was dismissed as non-discriminatory.
  • Eatock v Bolt [2011]: Commentator Andrew Bolt was found to have contravened 18C for comments about fair-skinned Aboriginal persons.

Constitutionality and Law Reform Proposals

The Act is grounded in the external affairs power of the Australian Constitution, specifically Section 51(xxix). This power enabled the federal parliament to implement international obligations from the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The High Court upheld the Act's validity in Koowarta v. Bjelke-Petersen (1982) and Mabo v Queensland (No 1) (1988).

Debate around Section 18C has led to proposals for reform, with arguments centered on balancing freedom of speech and protection against racial vilification. Despite calls for change, the Australian Senate voted against amending 18C in March 2017.


The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 remains a vital tool in combating racial discrimination in Australia. By addressing both direct and indirect discrimination and providing legal recourse for affected individuals, the Act underscores Australia's commitment to equality and human rights. While debates continue around certain provisions, the Act's foundation in international law and its impact on protecting diversity and inclusion are undeniable.


  • Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)
  • Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
  • Notable cases: Bligh and Ors v State of Queensland [1996], Wotton v Queensland (No 5) [2016], Eatock v Bolt [2011]
  • High Court rulings: Koowarta v. Bjelke-Petersen (1982), Mabo v Queensland (No 1) (1988)

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