Australia as a nation — race, rights and immigration Warning

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Improving Human Rights: the Racial Discrimination Act

Around 1970, the Australian Government position on the discriminatory White Australia policy was changing.

In 1966, the Holt Government began to liberalise Australia’s restrictive immigration policy and in 1972, the newly elected Whitlam Government began to formally dismantle the White Australia Policy.

In response to changing public attitudes and as part of a policy shift towards multiculturalism, the Australian Government formalised its commitment to the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1975 by introducing the Federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Teacher’s note: In this part of the sequence, students will investigate the Racial Discrimination Act, and some of its key features, as a turning point in government action against racism.

Before beginning this section, you may wish to refer students back to the ideas explored in the class discussion on racism conducted in Sequence 1. Remind students that racism can take many forms, it can involve direct racism such as jokes or comments that cause offence or hurt, and it can also include systemic or institutional racism in policies, conditions or practices that disadvantage certain groups.

What does the Racial Discrimination Act do?

The Racial Discrimination Act aims to ensure that Australians of all backgrounds are treated equally and have the same opportunities.

This Act makes it against the law to treat someone unfairly, or to discriminate against them, on the grounds of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, and immigration status. It also makes racial hatred against the law.

The Act protects you against discrimination in many areas of public life, including:

  • employment – getting a job, terms and conditions of a job, training, promotion, being dismissed

  • education – enrolling or studying in a course at a private or public school, college or university

  • accommodation – renting or buying a house or unit

  • getting or using services – such as banking and insurance services, services provided by government departments, transport or telecommunication services, professional services like those provided by lawyers, doctors or tradespeople, services provided by restaurants, shops or entertainment venues

  • accessing public places – such as parks, government offices, restaurants, hotels or shopping centres.

Explain to students that the Racial Discrimination Act is civil law, which means that criminal penalties do not apply if the law is breached, (i.e. you cannot go to jail for racial discrimination). Complaints of discrimination under the Racial Discrimination Act are most commonly dealth with by the Australian Human Rights Commission through a process of conciliation.

Teacher’s note: For more information on the Racial Discrimination Act, view the guide Know your rights: Racial discrimination and vilification, by the Australian Human Rights Commission.


Know your rights: Racial discrimination and vilification, Australian Human Rights Commission
Analysing the Act

Display and read out the following two sections from the Racial Discrimination Act to the class:

Section 2 (a)

Each State Party undertakes to engage in no act or practice of racial discrimination against persons, groups of persons or institutions and to ensure that all public authorities and public institutions, national and local, shall act in conformity with this obligation.

Section 11 (a)

It is unlawful for a person to refuse to allow another person access to or use of any place or vehicle that members of the public are, or a section of the public is, entitled or allowed to enter or use, or to refuse to allow another person access to or use of any such place or vehicle except on less favourable terms or conditions than those upon or subject to which he or she would otherwise allow access to or use of that place or vehicle; ... by reason of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of that other person or of any relative or associate of that other person.

Ask students to write down in their own words what these two sections mean. Discuss student responses as a class and clarify any areas where students are unsure of word meanings.

Teacher’s note: Be prepared to explain key terms such as: ‘legislation’, ‘ethnic origin’, ‘jurisdiction’, ‘institution’, clarify ‘goods and services’ and ‘access to places and facilities’.

Next ask students to identify how these sections of the Racial Discrimination Act relate to the experiences of the Freedom Riders on their bus tour.

Pose the question to the class: what consequences might this new legislation have in the towns that the Freedom Riders visited?

Class discussion

Consolidate student knowledge by discussing, as a class, the following questions:

  • According to the act, what are the grounds for unlawful discrimination? (The Act makes it against the law to discriminate against someone on the grounds of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin and migrant status)

  • What areas of life are covered in the Act? (Areas of public life such as employment, education, accommodation, etc.)

  • How important is it to make racism unlawful?

  • What other options, aside from using the law, are available to take action against racism? (e.g. local community initiatives promoting respectful relationships, social events celebrating diversity)

  • What can schools do to combat racism?

Assessment for Sequence 2

In the rich assessment task for this sequence ask students to draft and complete an informative text, on paper or with ICT, focusing on how and why the Freedom Riders helped to improve the human rights and freedoms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Encourage students to create a multi-modal presentation, using a combination of text, images, video and audio. For example, students could create an audio podcast. Find support for using Audacity software or internet broadcast with Spreaker.

Achievement standards:

  • describe the causes and effects of change on society

  • explain the significance of an individual and group

  • develop texts, particularly narratives and descriptions which use historical terms and concepts and incorporate relevant sources

Key historical concepts

Cause and effect; sources and evidence; continuity and change; significance


Audacity teach guide

Spreaker website

Resources in Sequence 2

Click here for a summary of all the resources used in this sequence.

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