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Thomas Keneally's lecture on Australia’s race relations legacy

Race Race Discrimination
Thomas Keneally and Janice Petersen in conversation

This year’s Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture was given by award-winning author Thomas Keneally AO, one of Australia's best known and most prolific writers and an Ambassador for the Asylum Seeker Centre.

The lecture, entitled ‘The Moveable Feast – Australia and race hate as experienced in the lifetime as an observer’ explored the history of race relations in Australia as seen through the author’s eyes over the last several decades.

The event takes place every year on 31 October, which marks the anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, introduced in 1975 by former federal Attorney-General the Hon. Kep Enderby QC.

This year for the first time the lecture was followed by an in-depth conversation between Thomas Keneally and SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen.

“The Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture is an annual event that aims to advance public understanding and debate about racism, race relations and the Racial Discrimination Act,” said Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan.

“Thomas Keneally’s very personal and generous lecture gave real food for thought about how vital social inclusion has been – and continues to be – here in Australia.”

Thomas Keneally’s work has often sought to explore the causes and impacts of alienation and exclusion based on race – and the importance of finding welcome in society.

In his lecture, Thomas Keneally gave a unique and valuable insight of how he has seen these themes play out over time in Australia. 

“In the years after the war, when I was in primary school and early high school in Homebush, a 1947 poll in the Age showed a preference for Northern European migrants, an aversion to the idea of Italians and Greeks,” said Thomas Keneally.

“The more hysterical people of the day said of the newcomers, “They’ll never be Australians like we’re Australians.” We were wrong then, but as White Australia died, we sang the same song about Asians and are now, many of us the children of people who were despised in our turn, singing that same odious cantata about people from Muslim nations, and Syrian and Iraqi Christians. 

“Being wrong about one group only leads to try the same rhetoric on another.

“People who get hysterical about asylum seekers don’t realise that if politicians get used to denying the humanity of a group of people, they can move on to deny your humanity. They don’t realise ‘we’re all in the boat together’ – we can all be treated with contempt and I think you’ve seen a growth of parliamentary contempt since 2001.

“My parents imbued in me a utopian idea of Australia. The idea of a social contract between society and us, the idea of Commonwealth, that we can be hard up but no one of us at the table of Commonwealth has less dignity than anyone else. That’s the proposition by which my parents lived, and I want it to be the proposition by which my grandchildren live.”

Thomas Keneally gave the 5th annual Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture. Previous year’s speakers have included leading academic Professor Marcia Langton, author and activist Dr Jackie Huggins, former Army Chief David Morrison, and the Hon. Robert French AC, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.

To find out more about the Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture series visit the Australian Human Rights Commission’s website at