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Speech to Jessie Street Trust annual lunch

Parliament House, 31 May 2019

Tim Soutphommasane Professor of Practice, The University of Sydney

**Check Against Delivery**

I am honoured to be joining you this afternoon, as we celebrate the 130th anniversary of Jessie Street’s birth – as we honour her memory and legacy. 

I first learned about Jessie Street when I was 19 years old. It was January 2002, and I had won a scholarship to spend six weeks in Canberra at the National Archives.  

Over the summer, along with another university student, we delved through the archives to gather materials for upcoming exhibits.

My task was to help prepare for an exhibit that would coincide with the centenary of the High Court.

My fellow scholar, a young historian from Newcastle, worked on an infinitely more interesting project: the friendship between Jessie Street and human rights activist Faith Bandler.

It was in this way that I was introduced to Jessie Street’s story.

More specifically, to her friendship and collaboration with Bandler, and their agitation for a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to enable Aboriginal people to be counted in the Census, and to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people.

A campaign that culminated, famously, in the 1967 Referendum – one of the few referenda in our history to carry successfully. 

Jessie Street played a central role in this.

As Bandler reflected, ‘Jessie’s role in our movement was absolutely vital. And she never wanted honour and glory. She’d give ideas away and the credit along with them.’ 

Jessie’s style was exemplary of human rights leadership.

It should never be about the glory, but always about acting in concert with others.

And the honour? Well, that’s something not to be enjoyed by any individual, but to be realised in the collective.  

It’s only appropriate for us to reflect on this, as we come to the end of what has been National Reconciliation Week.  

Naturally, there has been attention paid this week to the cause of the Constitutional recognition of First Peoples – in particular, the Uluru Statement from the Heart.   

This is, without doubt, an issue of fundamental importance in our national life.  

The culmination of extensive dialogues with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, conceived by the Referendum Council on constitutional recognition, the Uluru Statement proposed a guaranteed voice for Indigenous people in the form of an advisory body to parliament. 

The Uluru Statement from the Heart called for ‘constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country’. 

It is an eloquent blueprint.

And yet, when it was released two years ago, it was summarily dismissed by the federal government.

Its critics have suggested that the idea of an advisory voice would lead to the creation of a ‘third chamber’ of parliament.  


This is a false dismissal of the Voice proposal – not least because an advisory body is a proposition that cannot be likened to a chamber of parliament.

Indeed, after 230 years of not listening to the voices of First Peoples, and in light of the many injustices that continue to afflict First Peoples, it seems excessive to dismiss a call for a non-binding advisory voice to the Parliament.

I know that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people took umbrage with the Turnbull government’s rejection of the Uluru Statement in 2017.  

But now, perhaps, we may have an opportunity as a nation to listen to – and respond to – what First Nations people seek from our constitutional architecture.

A mature and confident democracy should be willing to consider this, without resorting to casting the idea of a voice as some subversion of parliamentary democracy. 

We can only imagine what Jessie Street might have said of this challenge we now face.  

Her legacy will forever be associated with the elimination of discrimination against Aboriginal people.  


There was also, of course, her lifelong advocacy and campaigning for women’s rights and equality.  

She founded the United Associations of Women in Australia in 1929, one of the most politically forceful women’s organisations in the country. 

She was, famously, part of the Australian delegation led by Doc Evatt to the UN Charter Conference in San Francisco in 1945.

It was through her intervention that the equal rights of men and women were recognised in the Charter’s preamble, and that the Chater provided for equality in employment for men and women.

She was instrumental in having a permanent Commission on the Status of Women established within the United Nations, and would go on to serve as the vice-chair of the Commission. 

Then there was her work with the international peace movement. 

Jessie Street’s life was one dedicated to the cause of human rights, a cause that crossed many constituents and groups. 

Her story – her legacy – is a reminder that this cause is, in one sense, indivisible – that advancing rights in one realm never comes at the expense of rights in other realms. 



A few weeks ago I began thinking about what I would say at this luncheon.  

Like so many others, I had expected I would be reflecting about the cause of human rights and social justice in a somewhat different political context.

Many of us had expected there would be a change of government. 

Indeed, many of us – myself included – believed this was one of the most ideologically significant elections in many years.  

Significant because we saw a Labor opposition campaigning on what was a forthright social democratic platform, with an agenda defined by redistribution. 

You would all know that Jessie Street was herself a two-time candidate for the Australian Labor Party. 

In 1943 she came close to winning the seat of Wentworth, a loss which prevented her from joining two others to be the first women to enter the Australian parliament. 

She ran again in 1946. Though she came close, she again lost. 

She ran a third time for parliament in 1949 as an independent Labor candidate – as Red Jessie, as she was known. 

Jessie Street was not simply a believer in human rights but also a socialist of conviction.  

In the lead-up to the federal election, I was one of many who believed we may have been seeing an imminent return of social democracy.  

For a long time, the Labor and Liberal parties have converged on the big questions of politics. 

Both have embraced an open-market economy. Both have accepted, to a large degree, that the primary aim of good government should be to deliver economic prosperity and security. 

Yet there was a sense that the public mood had been shifting towards social democracy.  


The benefits of 27 (almost 28) years of continuous economic growth haven’t trickled down to everyone.

There is serious unease around housing affordability and job security, especially among the many young people trapped in casualised jobs and the precarious ‘gig economy’.

Rising income equality and evidence of corporate misconduct (as revealed by the banking royal commission) remind us that markets can’t be trusted to operate fairly without firm regulation. 

These appeared as signs of market liberalism’s exhaustion.

The signs were backed up by some public opinion evidence.

A recent study by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney found that a greater number of Australians believed there should be more socialism as opposed to less of it.

A recent study by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney found that a greater number of Australians believed there should be more socialism as opposed to less of it.

That, for example, there was a high level of support among Australians for government ownership and operation of the economy.  

The results of May 18 now lead us towards a different story.

To be sure, many of us are still trying to divine the meaning of the electorate’s judgment.  

One thing, though, is abundantly clear: the times haven’t swung in favour of Australian social democracy – at least not yet.  

The future of social democracy is significant, I believe, not only as a question of political ideology. 

It also implicates the ability of our society to advance human rights, social justice and equality. 

I would argue that these are matters only recognised as urgent when people believe in something other than the market – when people believe in the primacy of politics, and in the role of the state to regulate markets and society.  

Within a framework of market liberalism, these are matters which are secondary to property rights, the rule of law and individual liberty.

As for a framework guided by conservatism, often the conservative impulse – one which believes in the wisdom of inherited traditions and customs – leads to scepticism about state action. The conservative view prefers instead the incremental acts of civil society.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that a belief in liberalism precludes a commitment to human rights – far from it.

Human rights go together with liberal democracy, after all.

And I’m not saying that conservatism is hostile to human rights: there are many good conservative friends of human rights.

Human rights is a universal language. It admits more than one specific tradition.

My point is more about the nuance of our public discourse – the unspoken premise or implications of how we talk about human rights, social justice and equality.

When we view things from the starting point of market liberalism, there is a danger that human rights can resemble adornments to modern capitalism: rights are like luxuries to consider after you consider the questions of the economy, rather than the foundations of a civilised society.

And when we view things from a conservative disposition, human rights can appear to be threats to tradition and order, rather than an expression of certain traditions and of a certain order.

By the same token, when it is expressed in dogmatic form, social democracy can ignore to its peril the need to nurture those relations of family and civil society, not to mention the creative powers of individual expression.

For those of us who care deeply about equality and justice, the current political state seems to pose some fundamental questions.

First, there are questions of policy and philosophy.

  • What are the values and priorities held by so-called middle Australia?

  • Is it the case that the Australian people value aspiration over equality?

  • Is it the case that the Australian people prioritise the generation of wealth over its redistribution?

  • And, perhaps just as important, are such values and priorities fixed – or are they open to revision or change?

Second, there are the questions of strategy and tactics.

  • If we are to argue in favour of justice and redistribution, how should we make the argument?

  • How must we frame it?

  • How must we couch the language of progressive reform?

  • And what is the relationship between the strategic ends of reform and the tactical means of politics?

  • Are reformers best to make themselves a small target? Or must they always be bold?

  • Is it better to die on one’s feet, or to live on one’s knees?

It is beyond me today to give answers to all these questions.

But, clearly, those of us who care about progress and reform must seek answers.

Or perhaps, we must make sure we ask the right questions.



Progress on human rights, justice and equality never comes easily.

I have already mentioned the cause of Constitutional recognition and the urgent task of reconciliation.

That is one example of how progress doesn’t always happen with the passage of time.

On many measures, the disadvantage and injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain as stark and profound as ever.

When I think more generally about questions involving race in Australia, I also often feel that it is a case of the more things change, the more they remain the same.

When I grew up in south-west Sydney in the 1990s, it was the experience of listening to Pauline Hanson warn about Australia being swamped by Asians – by people like me and my family – that brought me to political consciousness.

It was watching the rise of One Nation, and the hostility that it unleashed, that prompted me to think about politics, and to ask questions about justice.

As a high school teenager, after school, I would often retreat to the E. G. Whitlam Library on Railway Parade in Cabramatta, where I tried to read all I could about multiculturalism.

It was there that I first encountered the ideas of American political philosopher John Rawls.

In Rawls’s famous words, ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.’

I was mesmerised by Rawls’s idea of a social contract.

Imagine, Rawls wrote, being in an original position in political society.

Imagine sitting behind a veil of ignorance.

Imagine not knowing anything about yourself.

Imagine you don’t know anything about your gender, race, abilities, tastes, wealth or social position.

If you were in such a position, and had to choose how to organise society, or choose what policies a government would adopt, what would you do?

What would be fair? And what would be just?

Some twenty years on, from when I first encountered such questions, I still find myself asking the basic questions of justice.

And, some twenty years on, some political actors remain on the national stage.

If anything, the kind of racism, bigotry and xenophobia that I saw in our national debate in the 1990s has only got much worse.

Two decades ago, public declarations against immigration, multiculturalism and racial equality were met with near universal condemnation.

Today, by contrast, we are seeing a dangerous normalisation of racial hatred.

In our parliament in recent years, there has been a creeping escalation of racialised politics.

It began, in my view, when the federal government sought to weaken the racial hatred provisions in the Racial Discrimination Act.

On two occasions, in 2014 and in 2017 there were attempts to repeal section 18C.

On both occasions, the bids were met with widespread opposition and failed, though in 2017 a bill was only narrowly defeated on the floor of the Senate.

It was a great source of pride for me to have stood besides First Peoples, and many multicultural communities, and with citizens of goodwill to defend the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act.

But to have parliamentarians entertain the idea that racist speech could be made permissible in the name of free speech gave hatred a new licence.

In the past year or so, we have seen some truly unedifying examples of race politics and fear-mongering being openly aired and propagated within national politics.

The racialised panic about African gangs in Melbourne.

The questioning by some senior politicians of a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

The use of Nazi language about the ‘final solution’ in one senator’s maiden speech.

The support of white supremacist slogans, such as when more than 20-odd senators voted in support of Pauline Hanson’s motion that ‘It’s OK to be white’.

The monetisation of hate by some sections of our media.

When I look back at the past few years of race relations in Australia, there is no doubt that the task of human rights advocacy on racial equality has been a defensive one – to hold the line, and prevent a diminution in the legal protections against racism.

That is a brutal reminder of how hard it can be to make progress –a reminder of how some elements in our society will always seek to wind back advances we make.

And we see this in other areas of human rights, too.

This week, we saw yet another woman being brutally murdered in Melbourne parkland.

A recent survey of attitudes found an alarming lack of understanding among young Australians – particularly young men – about sexual consent and stalking.

There are many other examples I could name.

My point is this: all too often, many of us can assume that progress comes naturally.

That things will automatically improve with time.

Yet we can never be complacent.

The reality, as any of us who care about rights and justice would know, is that any progress will be accompanied by resistance and backlash.

Enduring change only comes with willed action, and when it is reinforced by leadership.

Society is like a car on a hill: you’ve got to keep your foot on the throttle just to prevent yourself from sliding backwards.



Friends, I don’t wish to do anything to deflate your spirits.

But we would be foolish not to recognise that these are challenging times.

There are many obstacles to human rights around the world today.

There are many threats to the liberal democratic order, and the values of equality, non-discrimination and dignity that are central to it.

The rise of nationalist populism, extremism and post-truth politics.

The widening inequality in wealth and power.

The rapid developments in technology and artificial intelligence, the true significance of which we do not yet fully realise.

The perennial problem of apathy and indifference.

In short, this is no time for fair weather friends of human rights, social justice and equality.

This is no time to be thinking about self-imposed exile in New Zealand.

Rather, this is precisely a time when we must rededicate ourselves to the task of building a good society.

Good citizens must be prepared to stand up for what’s right. Good citizens must have grit and must get stuck in.  

Looking around the room today, I see no shortage of dedication, and certainly no shortage of hope and determination.

And I see ample evidence that, through your work, the spirit of Jessie Street lives on.


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