Does a law change the way people behave and think? Can it accelerate a shift in cultural norms? These are some of the questions that emerge from this reflection on Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act (1975).
Tim Soutphommasane is hardly a disinterested commentator, since he owes his current job as Racial Discrimination Commissioner to the very act that he is writing about. So this is a sympathetic account of the act’s history and operation. It is not, however, a bland catalogue of achievement or a defensive response to those who see the act as an attempt to legislate away freedom of thought and expression. Soutphommasane responds to such detractors, and to other more nuanced critics, but does so in a reasoned and thoughtful way. What is on offer here is an informed and intelligent effort to grapple with complex issues and debates.
Soutphommasane’s training as a philosopher shines through, but he wears his scholarship lightly. He captures and conveys the evolution of complex ideas with clarity and precision. He places the Racial Discrimination Act in context with a succinct historical account of race in Australia, discussion of the race powers in the constitution (of particular relevance in the push for constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians), the evolution of international human rights law, contemporaneous developments like the US campaign for civil rights and the political contests of the Whitlam era.