Kep Enderby

Kep Enderby 

February 11 2015 

Jonathan Swift once said that vision is the art of seeing the invisible. The ability to see through the fog of the present to the clarity of tomorrow exemplifies the great progressives of our age. From early on in his life and legal career it was clear that Keppel Enderby, known as Kep, was something of a master in this art. Initially drawn to a burgeoning Canberra in the early 1960s to lecture in law at the Australian National University, Kep wasted no time making his presence felt in the bush capital. By 1970 he had secured Labor preselection for the Australian Capital Territory electorate—and he entered parliament in the same year.

As it happened, my parents knew him through a mutual friend. They recall him as a whirlwind of ideas. Apparently, I even stayed at his home in 1972. It was a few months before I was born, so my memories of it are a little hazy.

When then Attorney-General Lionel Murphy was appointed to the High Court in February 1975, Enderby went to Gough Whitlam with a forceful case for replacing Murphy in the role of Attorney-General. In an exchange characteristic of the period, Enderby went down to the Prime Minister's office and told him, 'Oh, come off it, I think I deserve it', to which Whitlam reportedly replied: 'All right, you bastard.'

Enderby served only nine months as Attorney-General. But during the period he helped shepherd some of the Whitlam era's most notable social reforms through a turbulent legislature. This included the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion in the territories, no-fault divorce, and the Racial Discrimination Act. Each was seen as radical for its time but, looking back at the words with which they were introduced, the vision was palpable. Speaking on the Racial Discrimination Bill 1975, Kep Enderby said:

The Bill will … make it unlawful for a person to do an act involving discrimination based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which impairs the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms. The Bill will guarantee equality before the law without distinction as to race.

On introducing no-fault divorce, he said:

It gets rid of the legalism because it establishes family courts. … I speak as a lawyer who has the role of deciding these matters.

He also spoke about the value of no-fault divorce:

… to try and bring about conciliation in a less rigid, less legalistic, less frightening way than under the present system.

Reforms like this were part of the foundations for a more open, tolerant and modern Australia.

Kep Enderby's relatively short term in parliament saw him serve as the last member to represent the entire territory in the lower house and the first to represent the newly-created division of Canberra. Unfortunately, Labor lost that seat when the government was swept from office in 1975—a pattern repeated in 1996 but not, thankfully, in 2013, otherwise my good friend the member for Canberra would not be here today.

Like Jim Fraser, after whom my electorate is named, Enderby was a proud and passionate advocate for Canberra. His efforts in championing civil liberties for the Australian people translated seamlessly into his representation of Australians in the territory and his push to enfranchise them. In decriminalising homosexuality and abortion, Enderby not only improved the lives of Canberrans. These changes impacted over two million people in the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory, Christmas Island and Papua New Guinea that previously had their penal codes derived from nearby states. The changes came through a criminal code for the territories, which reflected Enderby's understanding of the fundamental inequity in punishments being imposed by judges who sit in the Australian Capital Territory but administered by someone else.

Kep Enderby had many sides to him. He was a skilled golfer: New South Wales amateur golf champion 1946; second amateur, British Open, 1951; and leading amateur, Australian Open, 1947—among other awards.

After politics, Enderby learned the world language of Esperanto and became president of the World Esperanto Association. This prompted leading ABC broadcaster Phillip Adams to eulogise: 'Mia malnova amiko Keppel Grafo Enderby, politika idealisto kaj Esperanto defendanto, mortinta ce 88.'

He served as a Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales from 1982 to 1992.

He married Dorothy Leaper—Dot—1964. They had a son and a daughter.

ACT MLA Chris Bourke has spoken about Kep Enderby's championing the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during the Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest. He said:

In 1972, as ALP spokesperson for the Interior, Enderby stood up against the McMahon government's attempts to tear down the Tent Embassy.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has described him as 'a passionate Labor man who fought strongly for Labor values'.

Age did not weary this great crusader. Right up until his later years, Kep Enderby remained a vocal proponent of civil liberties, unafraid to write and speak on controversial issues such as the rights of prisoners. Thanks to the changes Enderby brought about, Australians now suffer less discrimination than they did before his time in politics.

Our challenge now is to find the issues that demand reform, from prominent issues such as inequality and climate change to invisible issues such as end-of-life care and civic participation. The work of progressive change is never done and each generation can draw inspiration from those like Kep Enderby who were the mighty builders of ages past.

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  • Andrew Leigh
    published this page in What's New 2015-02-12 15:25:44 +1100

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.