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Issue #1771      March 29, 2017

Making room for bigots

The government is attempting to rush through Parliament with amendments to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 that would legalise race hate speech. It is doing so in the name of promoting “free speech” while curbing the rights of organisations and people to speak out.

“The current racial vilification laws play an important role in protecting vulnerable minority groups from racism and abuse,” the Human Rights Law Centre said in arguing against any changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Section 18C of the Anti-Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin. The proposed amendments would replace “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” with the words “harass and intimidate.”

At present courts take into consideration the relevant context, namely that racial vilification is directed towards people of a particular race, in assessing whether it is reasonably likely that another person or group would be offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated.

The bill adds a qualification to Section 18C whereby the court assesses whether the act complained of was reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people. This is “to be determined by the standards of a reasonable member of the Australian community.”

This proposed change guts the strength of the Act, as it does not take into consideration the impact it might have on a particular person or group, how they feel about or react to the act being complained about. For example, an act that offends a person’s particular skin colour may not hurt “a reasonable member of the Australian community”.

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Soutphommasane, said he believed the changes to section 18C represented a weakening of the protections against racial hate speech. “You may well have situations where someone has experienced serious racial vilification … which would not be captured by a new law,” he said.

Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs warned that the bill’s inclusion of a “mandatory accept/reject” phase in the Commission’s process for dealing with complaints of unlawful discrimination was counterproductive. This runs contrary to the aims of the Commission and would only result in more people going directly to court without any attempt at reconciliation.

“Very little can stop them ultimately going to court, but we provide a free, efficient (and) fair system for conciliation of matters before they need to go to court. To place a chilling effect on that … is very worrying.”

One of the key functions of the Commission is to establish “a voluntary process in which the parties come together to hopefully conciliate the matter” and remove the prospect of further legal action. It has had a 76 percent success rate in resolving cases.

High jump for justice

The former Liberal Howard government fostered a climate of racism and xenophobia in an attempt to win over potential One Nation voters. This changed the political climate, and set the scene for the bigots to come out openly against immigrants, Indigenous Australians and multiculturalism. The Murdoch media gave them all the space and time they wanted to spew their divisive hatred.

The Abbott/Turnbull government took up where Howard left off, with the extreme right and the likes of Andrew Bolt and the Murdoch media in the driving seat.

The fascist-minded individuals within the Liberal Party and the media claim that the bar for an offence under the Racial Discrimination Act has been set too low, resulting in frivolous and vexatious cases. Their aim is to raise that bar, to make it harder to access justice.

They continuously harp on about the case regarding the late Bill Leak’s cartoon that appeared in The Australian newspaper. They also refer to the outcomes of a case against right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt who broke the law in 2009 when he wrote about light-skinned people who identify as Aboriginal.

These examples are pretexts to legalise bigotry, to enable the extreme right to come out more openly with their racism and xenophobia. Attorney General George Brandis made this aim very clear when he said: “In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

In parliament he called for the right of people to be bigots, which is the aim of this legislation. He did not call for the right to be free of bigotry or racism.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is the personification of hypocrisy.

Following the recent violent street incident in London, Turnbull responded to One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration by warning that “inciting hatred against any part of the Australian community is always dangerous. It undermines the mutual respect that we have in our community,” which underpins social cohesion.

Almost in the same breath Turnbull hypocritically supported amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act to legalise racial hatred and bigotry.

His hypocrisy does not stop there. With one eye on the large Jewish community in his electorate and their strong opposition to a weakening of the legislation, Turnbull said, “Racism and racial hatred have killed millions, wounded and marginalised many more and destroyed societies and nations. They have no place in Australia.”

But the government is making a place for them.

See Editorial

Next article – Editorial – Freedom from speech

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