Bill of Rights

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MP Susan Ryan ... looks back on the Sex Discrimination Act as a start of an idea.

A BILL of rights … the legislation that keeps on struggling to live.

The Whitlam government tried it in 1973. Then Gareth Evans tried it as attorney-general in 1984.

The bill, he said, would serve as an ''inspirational and educational document, stated in clear language and designed for the schoolroom wall''.

Evans's successor, Lionel Bowen, brought the bill back in 1985. But the bureaucrats were not amused. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was concerned about the cost and scope for judicial interpretation.

Treasury worried about the cost, too, and the potential for conflict with the states.

On September 30, 1985, cabinet approved the bill for tabling.

Until that day, the bill of rights had the look of 2013. Then cabinet imposed the words ''a person of the opposite sex'' after the words ''to marry'' in article 12. As a sop to the states it included a proviso that the new Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission would only be able to investigate state laws and practices with the approval of the attorney-general.

The bill marched through the House of Representatives but failed to pass the Senate. It was withdrawn in November 1986.

Cabinet agreed to the tabling of a green paper on affirmative action and named Susan Ryan as minister assisting the prime minister on the status of women to chair a working party.

The Sex Discrimination Act, approved by Parliament in March 1984, outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status and pregnancy but it did not compel breaking down occupational segregation of greater participation of women in all areas of the workforce.

Ryan looks back on the affirmative action legislation as a start of an idea.

But the Defence Force took it seriously. In April 1984, 4523 women worked in the armed services but cabinet was told under the requirements of Sex Discrimination Act at 17,180 positions would open up to women on merit. But Ryan told cabinet in a joint submission it would not be unlawful for a person to discriminate against a woman in combat or combat-related duties.