Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

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Anne, the Human Relations Commission was set up by the Whitlam Government, and the Whitlam Government lost power when Whitlam was dismissed. That must have been pretty much before you'd finished. What did the change of government mean for the commission?

It meant that during the period of the interim government, when Fraser took over the reins, very little happened ... because nobody knew what were going to be the results of the next election. However, at that next election, not long after that ... Fraser was returned with a big majority and what happened then was that we were told to wind up the commission by the end of the year. That was in 1976. And that meant we had only been going for two years, whereas originally we had ... we had been given to understand we had three years. We hadn't completed all our research. We had however written up quite a lot but in very kind of ... just written the research that we'd done. In 1977 it meant that Elizabeth and I, in consultation with Felix Arnott who was in Brisbane actually, wrote all five volumes of the royal commission report. Ah ... mostly, in my case, on my typewriter at home ... and we completed the report in that way. We did have an administrator who had once worked for the navy, and who had a contingency fund put aside. And he managed to hang on to ... his work there part-time, and we had an office assistant [a secretary to the commission] who was there and worked with us as well. But it really was Elizabeth and I writing the report at home. That's what eventuated.

Were you paid to do that?

I wasn't paid, no. Elizabeth ... and nor was Elizabeth, but she did have her salary with the family court where she was the chief judge. Yeah, it was a kind of ... it was a desperate effort. We were damned if we were going to be stopped from bringing out this report. Ah ... and all sorts of people came in and helped us, incidentally. I mean, people came in and helped with bits of unfinished research and so we kind of weren't sailing the ship all alone. But it was a huge ... it was a huge effort, a huge task.

You were involved in the early history of the Anti-Discrimination Board, weren't you?

Yes.

What did that involve?

I was a founding member of the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board at a time when there was a lot of fear about having an anti-discrimination legislation, and when the board met with a lot of hostility, and when there was an enormous task ahead of us in educating people about the board and about what that kind of legislation meant. What [do] anti-discrimination laws (it subsequently came to be called equal opportunity) mean? It meant for me particularly ... a very ... quite heavy program, moving around New South Wales, talking about equal opportunity in RSL clubs, in businesses, in boardrooms, often with a very hostile audience of disgruntled men ... who would catcall and say, you know, ‘if I want to employ a secretary who's got a measurement like that, why shouldn't I be allowed to do it?’ ... .which of course was not the point at all. And how ever much you talked about equal opportunity and about ... about how they would gain as employers, it didn't cut much ice in the beginning. It was ... it was quite difficult. There was often very hostile audiences. I think the importance, particularly in those early years, of having legislation both at the state and federal level is that, what it ... what it said was that ... these governments, this government, these governments intend to take these issues seriously. We are going to have equal opportunity in our society. It is important, and you will comply.

And without that, I don't think anything would have happened. Now once people start complying, whether they're forced to or not, then their experience begins to change because they begin to take women on staff. They begin to recognise that the end of the world isn't going to come. And also ... the commission is able to build up a body of research that can help overturn some of the myths. For example, if you employ women they'll be away every month because of the menopause or menstruation, or they'll always be having babies, or they'll always be bursting into tears. All these sorts of things. So that the research arm of the ... of the anti-discrimination, equal opportunity commissions, is equally important.

No ... what ... what is important ...

You actually have said that.

I have said that ...

You said that originally it was going to be the abortion thing ...

[end of interview]