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Issue #1651      August 13, 2014

Discrimination backdown welcome, but threat remains

The Abbott government’s decision to drop its proposed deletion of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is certainly good news. However, the decision was intended to shore up electoral support rather than support human rights.

When George Brandis made his disastrous statement that everyone has the right to be a bigot, he failed to acknowledge that everyone has the right to be free from bigotry.

Section 18C prohibits offending, humiliating, insulting or intimidating individuals because of their race, colour or ethnic or national origin. The proposal to delete 18C was a pre-election promise by Abbott to media “shock jock” Andrew Bolt, who had formerly been convicted of violating the Act.

The proposal was castigated by the legal fraternity, and the Indigenous, Jewish, Arabic, Chinese, Greek and Cypriot communities united in opposition to it. Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley commented with regard to members of these communities:

“Making offensive statements about a person is categorically different to offending someone over (for example) their religion, they say. Skin colour is not a matter of belief or choice. If you insult or offend a black person for being black, you are attacking their dignity as a human, not their choices or beliefs (which in a free society are up for discussion, even if that discussion is offensive).”

The government then decided to retain Section 18C, but to still remove from it the key words that specifically prohibited insulting, humiliating or offending behaviour, which obviously had much the same effect as the original proposal. Public feelings remained intense, and the government received 4,100 submissions, 76 percent of which opposed the amended proposal.

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis had publicly defended the amendment less than 24 hours before the decision. However, some Coalition MPs feared that altering the Act would cause electoral damage in marginal seats with large communities of migrants, many of whom are outraged by the Liberals’ unwavering support for Israel, including its current attack on Gaza.

Craig Laundy, Liberal Member for Reid in western Sydney, wants the Liberals to change their position and vote for Palestinian statehood. Other Liberals worry about losing electoral support to Labor.

The NSW branch of the ALP recently supported demilitarisation of Gaza under UN supervision, noting that “If … there is no progress towards a two-state solution and if Israel continues to build and expand settlements, a Labor government will consult like-minded nations towards recognition of the Palestinian state.”

How to lose friends and offend everyone

The government’s move to leave clause 18C intact is widely seen as a cynical attempt to buy the votes of migrant Australians, especially Muslims. Moreover, the decision to pull back from altering 18C was announced during a press conference on the highly dangerous so-called anti-terror laws.

The government was, in effect, offering to preserve 18C if migrant voters assented to its proposal to expand those laws. But it didn’t work.

Moreover, a great many allies of the Coalition have expressed bitter disappointment at the government’s decision to leave the Racial Discrimination Act alone – for the moment.

After the announcement one Liberal MP lamented: “We’re now in the worst of both worlds – we’ve defended the rights of bigots and now we’re selling out the bigots.”

Andrew Bolt was notified about the decision shortly before it was publicly announced. He complained bitterly: “Too many lobby groups hate free speech and the reforms were badly sold”.

Supporters of the ultra-right-wing think tank the Institute for Public Affairs besieged Craig Laundy with 257 emails attacking his criticism of the government for the proposed changes to 18C.

Family First Senator Bob Day denounced the government’s decision to pull back, declaring that Brandis’ reworded amendment had “got it right”. He intends to resubmit the amendment exactly as Brandis had rewritten it, as a private member’s bill in the Senate.

Such a move would be excruciatingly embarrassing for the government. Brandis would be forced to oppose a bill he drafted and still believes in, despite his public repudiation of it.

Another right-wing critic of the proposal’s retraction was Tim Wilson, whom the government had appointed as the Human Rights Commissioner (which he once said should be abolished), and who enthusiastically supported removal of 18C.

In a Fairfax Press article last week Wilson argued that Clause 18C violated the right to freedom of speech. Ignoring the fact that right-wing internet communications and shock jock broadcasts incited the Cronulla race attacks, he declared that “On the internet we can access the most hateful and absurd websites, and yet our society has not become corrupted in the process.”

Despite this, Wilson accepted the need for laws against libel, slander and copyright violations. Moreover, and apparently without seeing the contradiction in his own position, he acknowledged that “… we make speech illegal … because it conflicts with the human rights of others.”

Exactly! Every human right must be judged in respect to other rights. They’re relative, not absolute.

When George Brandis made his disastrous statement that everyone has the right to be a bigot, he failed to acknowledge that everyone has the right to be free from bigotry, which is why the Racial Discrimination Act was originally passed.

Likewise, when tobacco corporations say they have a right to sell their products without government requirements such as plain paper packaging or health warnings, they fail to acknowledge the public’s right to be fully informed about the danger that cigarettes pose to human health and to be free of marketing that promotes unhealthy products.

And when the Abbott government claims it has the right to forcibly transport asylum seekers back to their home countries or Manus Island or Nauru because they pose a risk to national security (a completely phoney argument anyway), it denies them the right to asylum as enshrined in the UN Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory.

So Wilson’s argument that we need political reform “that advances human rights for all Australians” is misleading. A reform that benefits the majority will disadvantage those who claim the right to abuse the majority, as in the case of discrimination on the basis of race, colour or ethnic or national origin.

The defence of human rights ultimately rests on the question: “Which side are you on?”

Next article – New Warkworth mine process must be quashed: residents

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