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Issue #1633      April 2, 2014

Green light for racism

“People do have a right to be bigots, you know.” The words burst like a bombshell in the ongoing public debate over the Racial Discrimination Act. They weren’t blurted out in the front bar of a pub by someone itching for an alcohol-fuelled argument; they were said in federal parliament by the most senior law-maker in the country. Attorney-General George Brandis’ defence of his draft exposure bill to weaken the Act sent his more socially aware Coalition colleagues ducking for cover and incensed those in the community who regularly confront racist abuse.

Image from the Australian Human Rights Commission “Racism. It stops with me.” campaign – itstopswithme.humanrights.gov.au.

Media reports claim Brandis wanted to go further towards gutting the protections provided by sections 18C and 18D when the matter was discussed at a recent Federal Caucus meeting. “George has really drunk the right-wing Kool-Aid,” a minister reportedly said. The changes would remove the words “offend, insult and humiliate” on the basis of race or ethnicity from the section, retain the word “intimidate” (though this would be limited to perceived physical threat) and add the word “vilify”.

No big deal? It sure is. With the changes in place, right-wing News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt probably wouldn’t have had a case to answer over the comments he made in 2011 questioning the motivations of several prominent fair-skinned Aboriginal people. He was legally sanctioned over the piece, as he should have been. The test for current legislation is whether the person to whom comments are directed is reasonably likely to feel insulted or humiliated. Brandis’ proposed test for intimidation and vilification is how the majority of people in the wider community would feel.

“For example, members of a majority might regard calling someone a ‘nigger’ amusing whereas a black person might regard it as highly offensive,” Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou, partner at the Justicia law firm, said recently. “And one must apply these tests according to how the language affects the minority person.”

There is also a loophole at hand for “free speech” exemptions – “public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.” Brandis is quick to defend his bill from the logical consequence that Holocaust deniers would take advantage of the more indulgent legal attitude. “We want to protect racial minorities from the core concept of racism, which is the incitement of racial hatred or the causing of fear because of a person’s race,” the Attorney-General said. “It all depends on the particular facts but might I remind you that racial vilification would always capture the concept of Holocaust denial.”

How is that enshrined in the draft bill? If British Holocaust-denying “historian” David Irving wants to come to Australia and lecture about the supposed lack of evidence for extermination camps without exhorting his audiences to attack Jews, what possible objection could there be? He has a right to be wrong and to express his opinions, surely? Not surprisingly, prominent members of the Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors, are not buying it. They have been very vocal in their opposition to the “reforms” to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Warren Mundine, hand-picked head of Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council, is opposed to the changes to the Act. So is Labor Senator for the Northern Territory, Nova Peris, who spoke movingly of her experience of hate speech during her sporting career. A number of Liberal back-benchers have expressed their unease and one has said he would cross the floor to vote with Labor and the Greens. The bill looks doomed in the Senate even after July 1 when the brace of new, mostly right-wing Senators take their red leather seats.

But the damage is done. The message is put out that there will be greater official tolerance of the intolerant and the fanning of unfounded divisions among the people exploited by the current socio-economic system.

The Murdoch media empire has made its attitude clear with an editorial in The Australian of March 26:

“Adult governments understand they can’t legislate the world into good order. Bigotry must be confronted and defeated, not by laws but by reasoned debate, free speech and mature governance. Tony Abbott and Senator Brandis seem to understand where the state ends and community takes over,” the Murdoch flagship opined.

Opposition to this legislative green light to bigotry is, therefore, “childish”. Markets and debates fed by “news” and views of the Murdoch sort must shape the future. If the “debate” against bigotry is lost, people from racial and ethnic minorities will have to suffer the consequences. That is the current thinking of the Australian ruling class on racial discrimination. Contrast this with their thinking on trade unions, which must be hemmed in and frustrated in their work by layer after layer of legislation. To this agenda of division and attack, Australia’s multi-cultural working class must counter-pose its own of solidarity and action in its own interests.

Next article – Editorial – “Death of Democracy Day”

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