The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) has featured in the news recently with the Government’s plan to reintroduce the RDA after it was suspended as part of the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007. We’ve put together five fast facts to help you get your head around the RDA.
1. The Racial Discrimination Act was a statute passed by the Whitlam Government in 1975.
The RDA was Australia’s first federal anti-discrimination law and applies throughout Australia to all people regardless of their age or where they live. The RDA aims to ensure that everyone is treated equally, regardless of race, colour, descent, immigration status and national or ethnic origin.
The RDA is administered by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), with an Australian Human Rights Commissioner responsible for investigating complaints. The Commission also works to raise awareness about the obligations that individuals and organisations have under the RDA.
Each of the states and territories has adopted legislation similar to the RDA.
2. The power assigned to the RDA arose from the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Australia is a signatory.
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966) was one of the first human rights treaties to be adopted by the United Nations. The Convention is widely supported, with more than 156 countries having ratified it.
Australia ratified the Convention on 30 September 1975 and thereby undertook not to engage in any act or practice of racial discrimination against individuals, groups of persons or institutions, and to ensure that public authorities and institutions do likewise.
3. Since 1975, thousands of individuals and organisations have used the RDA to address racism, either by making complaints or negotiating policy changes.
Under the RDA, it is against the law to discriminate in employment, education, access to premises, the provision of goods and services, accommodation and sport on the basis of someone’s race. Resolving a complaint under the RDA can involve changes in an organisation’s policies or practices, an apology or payment of damages. The RDA means that you can’t be discriminated against when you apply for a job, for example, and that it’s illegal for someone playing footy to make a racial slur against another player. Anti-racial discrimination legislation at the federal, state and territory level is a critical avenue for people who experience racial discrimination to seek justice before the law.
4. The RDA contains provisions for the use of ‘special measures’.
The RDA allows for ‘special measures’ that involve treating particular racial, ethnic or national groups or individuals differently without being considered discriminatory. ‘Special measures’ are initiatives intended to help certain racial groups who have been unfairly treated and who need support to be able to exercise their human rights. There are several examples of these ‘special measures’ in Australia, including the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and Aboriginal legal and medical services. Under the ‘special measures’ component of the RDA, government support for these organisations is non-discriminatory because they enhance the access of minority groups to justice, cultural expression and other rights and freedoms. According to the AHRC, a fundamental feature of ‘special measures’ is that they follow consultation with the people who will be affected by the legislation, and are generally implemented with their consent.
5. The Australian Parliament has the ability to suspend the RDA at any time.
Any piece of legislation, including the RDA, can be suspended as long as the process is approved in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This means that the RDA can be relatively easily suspended in order to introduce discriminatory legislation. This is partly due to the fact that the Australian Constitution does not have specific anti-racial discrimination measures. The RDA has been amended three times, each time in relation to Indigenous Australians.