Anti-Discrimination at Dapto

From late 1978 to mid 1982 I worked at the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW. It was an exciting place with committed Board members and staff. In those early days the ADB was an autonomous outlier of Premier’s Department. Refugees from South-East Asia and migrants from the Middle East were making New South Wales a more diverse society.

Initially the grounds for complaint under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 were race, sex and marital status. By 1982, physical impairment and homosexuality had been added.

The tiny community relations team had the task of making five million citizens aware of their rights. We wrote leaflets and radio spots in many languages; we prepared TV infomercials, we started a newsletter and we travelled to many regional towns and cities. We ran conferences. We briefed the media on hearings before the Board. We ran seminars in schools, universities and many places of work. The Senior Sergeants of Police are particularly memorable. The convenor would greet me with, “There are more than 300 years of policing experience in this room.”

Community relations officer, ADB, 1980

Colleagues who were researching discrimination based on age, religion, political conviction, homosexuality and disability had expertise and wide contacts. Our Aboriginal project officer taught me a great deal. We worked with the Ethnic Affairs Commission on tackling racial vilification.

But not every day was a triumph.

Occasionally there was an outright disaster.

One autumn evening, leaving my husband and sons on their own, I drove south to Dapto – I’d been invited to speak at a service club. I reached my motel at dusk and was on time at the venue. The engineer who’d invited me seemed friendly, and so did the club president. The dinner went smoothly enough. Club formalities followed, with various jokes and fines from the Sergeant-at-Arms.

There were no wives at this event. A waitress and I were the only women in sight. There were about 45 men.

I was introduced.

This is the gist of what I said: Your right to a fair go. Discrimination complaints on the grounds of race, sex and marital status. Early cases before the Board. Equal opportunities for all. Increasing numbers of women in fire-fighting, policing and skilled trades.

The President thanked me and called on a man from the far side of the room to move the vote of thanks.

Mercifully I have no memory of what the man looked like. But his words will stay with me forever. “That would be the greatest load of crap I ever heard in my entire life.”

I was wearing a red woollen dress. I could feel my face reddening to match it.

While the engineer and the president were wondering how to make amends, two men dashed up to me.

“Terrific talk!” they said. “We aren’t members here – we’re visiting from the Fairy Meadow club, and we want you to know we never treat our guests like that at Fairy Meadow.”

I was grateful to those two kind men. Ever since, I’ve had a a special fondness for Fairy Meadow.

PENELOPE NELSON

March 2021

3 thoughts on “Anti-Discrimination at Dapto

  1. How well I remember those distant days, when, like you my task was educating members of the NSW Public Service about equal opportunity without discrimination. Considering the current events in our Parliament, have we come very far do you think, particularly in combatting sexism in the workplace?

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  2. My God, compared to your serious work in Dapto and elsewhere, I was just trying to lead by example in the frivolous world of showbusiness, followed by the major sexist environment of the legal profession. Can’t say either were a great success. I did think that sexism in the workforce had improved in the last twenty years but I think now we’ve been fooling ourselves. What has been on display in recent weeks is a deeply entrenched, long lasting problem with gender relations in Australia. It’s just come to the surface yet again.

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  3. Yes, in the 80s we were sure that having more girls finish school, qualify for interesting work and make good money would lead to universal recognition of their equal merit. Now we have juvenile, sexist behaviour, so demeaning, in so many spheres. We have to see the new activism of angry women as a cause for hope. But how shocking that we still have to be so angry.

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