Great Moments in Indigenous History

Northland Secondary College Koori Kids Beat Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett - 1996

Moira Rayner
Former Vic Commissioner for Human Rights talks about the Northlands Struggle

"In 1992 the Kennett government announced the closure of a number of schools, including Northland Secondary College. The school was internationally and nationally renowned for its innovations in Koori education. It enjoyed unprecedented success in encouraging many Aboriginal children to complete their education. Two students complained that the closure would indirectly discriminate against them because of their race: they simply could not succeed in a public education system which did not take into account their special needs and disadvantages - and the closure breached the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act.

The government's immediate response was to amend the Victorian Constitution so that the Supreme Court - and all State courts - could never again review any future decision to close a school, ever. Its case then rested upon its overall economic priorities being more important than any child's right to a public education.

The children's case was that to deprive them, as Aboriginals, of education was at least as important as the state of the budget and had not been adequately considered. The Supreme Court finally agreed, after two years of hearings and appeals, and the school was ordered to re-open. Yet as he ordered the final, unsuccessful series of appeals Premier Kennett announced that, beating them - the two Koori children - was a crucial test of his right to govern. In a radio interview on 23 February 1995 he said: Equal opportunity . . . was always intended to be about the rights of individuals, and not to second-judge government policy.

Now this was irrational. The premier misunderstood or misstated his responsibility to the people No government has been illegitimately frustrated in its proper function when its own Supreme Court has found it acted illegally - no right to govern extends to breaking the law - and government must take into account the catastrophic effects of its decisions on some of its citizens. This is a question of justice, and good government.

Justice is to be found in a community where privilege has to be earned, and can be challenged. It lives in a workplace where a harassed worker can challenge a dismissal that follows the rejection of the bosses advances, and in a city where an injured or disabled employee is not reduced to penury, and is helped back to work, and where people with disabilities and their carers get the support they need from the community, because they need it, not if they can pay for it.

A just society is one whose citizens believe that some kinds of deprivation are utterly unacceptable. A socially just community does not assume that everyone has the same opportunity to demonstrate what they are capable of. It ensures that they are given every opportunity to do so. It is a community with a moral net of interdependency."

Moira Raynor, Enabling a Just Society
2 March 1998