A major impetus for Australia's Freedom Ride came from the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The ideals of this movement, and the non-violent protest tactics of Martin Luther King, inspired Sydney students to demonstrate against racial discrimination in the United States. After being asked what they were doing about the discrimination on their own doorstep, the students formed a group and visited segregated towns in NSW and Queensland. During the tour Aboriginal student Charles Perkins emerged as the leader of the group and its media spokesperson.
The 1965 Freedom Ride was a modest movement: 30 students were involved, and their tour lasted less than three weeks. But public opinion was mobilised by effective use of the media. Student protests at segregated venues in some NSW country towns became front page news nationwide, exposing to other Australians the informal colour bar in outback towns that was tolerated by most local and state government authorities. The students' challenge to the stark injustice of segregation and discrimination empowered Aboriginal people in these country towns. The Freedom Ride became a major turning point in black and white relations in Australia.
The Eight-hour Day movement of the 1850s was a mass movement led by workers in the building industry. The leaders had been involved in the British movement for democratic rights known as Chartism. The Stonemasons' Society (a forerunner of trade unions) organised itself to negotiate hours of work with employers. Circumstances were in their favour: Building booms in Sydney and Melbourne made strike action a potent threat, and public opinion supported the workers. Melbourne working men were also able to get a representative elected to the Victorian Parliament. Yet shorter working hours were won by only the most privileged workers. Unskilled labourers and women usually worked longer hours.
Women were further disadvantaged by their restriction to a limited range of occupations. Until recently work has been segregated along gender lines. The notion of 'men's work' and 'women's work' was reinforced by the 1907 Harvester Judgement which introduced the principle of a basic or 'living' wage, but also entrenched the notion of women as dependants and men as 'breadwinners', who were consequently paid more than women. Equal pay campaigners have struggled throughout the twentieth century to achieve equal pay for men and women, or 'a rate for the job', irrespective of the gender of the worker. They have employed a range of strategies, mobilising public opinion through persuasion and demonstrations, and arguing their case before the courts. Although equal pay has been an elusive goal, action by individuals and groups has narrowed the gap between men's and women's pay. Campaigners have persuaded governments and wage-fixing mechanisms to adopt the principle of equal pay.
These three popular movements deal with issues of prejudice and discrimination, race, class and gender.
To read more about the ideas in this unit refer to Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia.
Active Citizens - Civics and Citizenship Materials: Unit 4 1997, Victoria Law Foundation, Melbourne.
The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia 1994, ed David Horton, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
Frances, Raelene and Scates, Bruce 1993, Women at Work in Australia from the Gold Rushes to World War Two, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.
McKenna, Elaine with Deborah Lawrie 1992, Letting Fly, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
Perkins, Charles 1975, A Bastard Like Me, Ure Smith, Sydney.
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