Racism in Australia

Dr Tim Soutphommosane, Australian Human Rights Commissioner, spoke with Ideas and Society Convenor Professor Robert Manne about amendments proposed to the Racial Discrimination Act. The discussion was introduced by Dr Gwenda Tavan, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations.

Watch the debate

Racism in Australia

What the audience said

There was a lively discussion among some audience members using the Twitter hashtag #ideasandso

What the speakers said

Professor Robert Manne arranged this Ideas and Society event in order to consider in depth the potential impact of the changes proposed to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

As Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane was able to discuss the proposed changes in depth from both a legal and a social perspective.

Dr Soutphommasane spoke of the importance of laws that set standards for behaviour and that establish social norms in society. He said that the Race Discrimination Act is a legislative expression of Australian multiculturalism - it is a law that ensures all Australians can participate in society on an equal footing, regardless of race.

The exchange between the speakers shed some light on how the Act works, with Dr Soutphommasane explaining that very few cases brought forward under the Act end up in court; the majority are successfully conciliated.

Professor Manne raised the question of Andrew Bolt's role in the proposed changes to the Act, to which Dr Soutphommasane replied definitively that we would not be having this debate at all in 2014 were it not for the widely publicised case of Eatock v Bolt - the 'Andrew Bolt case' - of 2011.

The judgement against Andrew Bolt rested primarily on the fact that in Bolt's misrepresentation of Aboriginal people, he had not acted reasonably and in good faith.

The key sections of the Act under consideration for amendment by the Federal Attorney General Senator George Brandis are Sections 18C and 18D. Dr Soutphommasane explained that the two sections balance one another, with 18C outlawing discrimination on the grounds of race while 18D provides for the protection of free speech in cases of artistic freedom and analysis and commentary, if these are conducted reasonably and in good faith.

More about our speakers

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor, a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow and Convenor of the Ideas and Society Program at La Trobe University. A leading public intellectual and commentator, he is the author/editor of over 20 books including Left, Right, Left: Political Essays 1977 - 2005; Making Trouble: Essays against the New Australian Complacency and three Quarterly Essays, most recently Bad News.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is Race Discrimination Commissioner, commencing his 5 year appointment in 2013. Prior to joining the Australian Human Rights Commission, he was a political philosopher at the University of Sydney and the author of three books. Dr Soutphommasane is a member of the Australian Multicultural Council and has a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Oxford. Dr Soutphommasane can be followed on Twitter, @timsout.

Dr Gwenda Tavan

Dr Gwenda Tavan lectures at La Trobe University in a variety of areas, including Australian Politics, political communication and political culture. Her research interests include Australian political institutions and culture, and the politics and history of immigration. Dr Tavan's best-known work is the award-winning The Long, Slow Death of White Australia, published in 2005.


This event took place on Tuesday 6 May 2014 at La Trobe University's Melbourne Campus.