Australia has a reputation for being racist. And with their old-timey slaughter of indigenous people, the locking up of refugees, and rioting in Cronulla, it’s hard to say they haven’t earned it. However, they have tried to be better. The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 was put in place to stamp out racism and has enjoyed varying degrees of success. Forty-odd years later, the Attorney-General of Australia, George Brandis, has said he wants to overhaul the act so that Australians can stop being worried about saying the wrong thing. It's about freedom of speech, apparently.
There were 997 complaints of racial abuse to the Human Rights Commission this year, half of them occurring online. That’s a 59 percent increase since 2012. On the other hand, the commission received just a handful of complaints related to freedom of expression. The Scanlon Foundation, which lobbies for social cohesion in Australia, found that one in five adults surveyed had been subject to racial abuse. Rather than try and work out why this happens (maybe the way the government talks about refugees has something to do with it), George wants to take away their right to complain when it does.
Groups who are regularly targeted because of race or ethnicity are downright annoyed. Nine groups representing the Jewish, Indigenous, Chinese, Greek, Armenian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Muslim women communities have jointly condemned any changes to the act.
It comes at a particularly bad time for the Jewish community. Last month a group of religious Jews, two of them in their 60s, were bashed and verbally abused in Sydney.
“The government wants to ensure that laws which are designed to prohibit racial vilification are not used as a vehicle to attack legitimate freedoms of speech,” argued George in his response to concerns from Jewish groups, adding that “the two values—protecting people against racial vilification and defending freedoms of speech—are not inconsistent.”
But the head of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim, said that there are clear links between racial vilification and violence. "If you repeal or water down this law it sends a signal from the federal government that racism is permissible, to some extent. And at the end of the day, the lesson of history is that it doesn't just stop with words, it develops into conflicts between different groups.”
It's not entirely clear what the proposed changes will be, but they are likely to relate to section 18c. This is the section that makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate another person or group on the basis of their race, color, or national or ethnic origin. However, if you do it in good faith and are accurate in your claims, it’s permissible. And if it's for the purposes of art, no problem—section 18d was put in place to allow for this too. In short, the Racial Discrimination Act is a law which is targeted at genuine racists, not journalists, comedians, or regular people.
And it kind of works. In 2011 journalist Andrew Bolt was found to have contravened the act for saying white-skinned Aboriginal people were exploiting their ethnicity to further their careers. Then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said Andrew was denied free speech. "You shouldn't condemn people simply for saying something other people don't want to hear," he said. But Andrew lost his case not because he's a journalist, and not because he said something truthful that was upsetting to hear. His claims that white-skinned indigenous people were abusing the system would have been lawful, so long as he had proof that this was the case. He didn't.
It would only be by removing both section 18C and section 18D that people like Andrew could make unsubstantiated racial slurs against a particular group—and get away with it. Would the government really go so far as to change the law in order to stay friends with Andrew and others who would like to use the freedom of speech argument as an excuse for racism? It sounds crazy but there doesn’t seem to be any other reason to do so. Has anyone been fined for making a joke? Do Aussies feel oppressed and mute because they're scared of offending someone? No and nope.
The President of the Human Rights Commission, Dr. Gillian Triggs, said that if the law is going to be changed, it doesn't have to be so drastic as to remove all protections from abuse. She said that removing the terms offend and insult might be a way to avoid annoying claims from people who complain about their bosses or neighbors out of spite.
The law still has to go through a review process, so if you want to start denying the Holocaust, make sure you do it as part of an art project. Or just don't do it.
Follow Carly on Twitter: @carlylearson
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