A number of human rights, multicultural and Indigenous organisations — as well as the chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine and Aboriginal Liberal MP Ken Wyatt — have voiced strong opposition to the Australian Government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Government wants to remove provisions in the Racial Discrimination Act that make it unlawful for an individual to publicly offend, insult, or humiliate another person or group based on their race.
According to Attorney-General George Brandis, the changes would “strengthen the Act’s protections against racism, while at the same time removing provisions which unreasonably limit freedom of speech.”
Under the proposed changes to Section 18C of the Act, it would remain an offence to intimidate another person — but is narrowed to acts of physical intimidation — and a new clause using the term “vilify” is set to replace the words “offend, insult or humiliate”.
The changes also introduce a very broad exemption for any act that is done “in the course of participating in public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”. This significantly widens the current exemption which protects fair reporting, fair comment and other matters done “reasonably” and in “good faith”.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress) has pursued a vigorous campaign with a number of ethnic communities to dissuade federal parliamentarians from watering down the nation’s racial discrimination laws, which according to Congress, would “threaten decades of hard work to build positive race relations in Australia.”
“Standing proudly alongside representatives of Australia’s Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities, Congress has argued the views and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples strongly to Government,” said Congress Co-Chair Kirstie Parker.
“We are horrified to consider the kind of Australia that could grow out of what is now being proposed.”
“We know intimately the impact that racist abuse has on our peoples. It undermines our sense of personal security and safety, can disenfranchise us even further from the rest of society, and literally makes us sick.”
Ms Parker said other worrying proposed changes included a new ‘ordinary and reasonable person’ test that was undefined and would almost certainly become a loophole for perpetrators of racial abuse.
Tom Calma, co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and former Racial Discrimination Commissioner, also believes the proposed changes would undermine the reconciliation process.
“This will put back reconciliation, understanding [and] respect. The protections are there to protect people from being vilified but also to be a deterrent to potential offenders,” Dr Calma said.
The changes would create “more opportunities for people to humiliate, vilify or denigrate other people based on their race or religion,” he said.
In a joint statement from Reconciliation Australia, Dr Calma and co-chair Melinda Cilento expressed “our strong view that all Australians have the right to be protected against racial discrimination and vilification. For this reason Reconciliation Australia is opposed to any changes to the RDA which weaken protections against racial discrimination.”
“Reconciliation Australia condemns all forms of racism. Racism is harmful. It destroys the confidence, self-esteem and health of individuals, undermines efforts to create fair and inclusive communities, breaks down relationships and erodes trust.”
The Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine is also continuing to place pressure on the Government over the proposed changes.
“In the community people are calling it the bigoted act everywhere I go, and I go right across Australian society,” Mr Mundine said.
“I think the Government has a lot of problems about this and even within the party room itself and across the Liberal Party has a whole.”
Mr Mundine had earlier described as “quite bizarre” Minister Brandis’s observation in Parliament that people “do have a right to be bigots” and said the proposed changes were not necessary. (See ABC online).
“There has been no curtailing of public comment in regard to a wide range of interests, there’s been no curtailing of abuse,” Mr Mundine told ABC Radio’s AM program.
“I get racial abuse every day. I get comments made every day about my heritage and everything like that and the whole country still flows forward.”
Ken Wyatt, the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives and a Liberal backbencher, has warned he may cross the floor if he is not satisfied with the legislation.
“I will await the consultation process that comes back … and then I’ll have the discussions with leadership to influence changes to hold that right of people who are vilified and to protect the vulnerable,” Mr Wyatt said.
The Australian Human Rights Commission said community debate would play an important role in the “challenging” task of finding a balance between protecting citizens from racism and promoting freedom of speech.
The Commission will make a comprehensive submission to the Attorney on the exposure draft in the coming weeks, but had some initial concerns.
“On first impression, the bill reduces the level of protection by providing a narrow definition of vilification and by limiting intimidation to causing fear of physical harm,” said President Gillian Triggs.
“It is not clear why intimidation should not include the psychological and emotional damage that can be caused by racial abuse.”
The Human Rights Law Centre also has expressed serious concerns over the proposal to weaken protections.
“Laws prohibiting racial vilification provide essential protection to individuals and communities that continue to experience racist hate speech. These proposals would substantially weaken the current laws and should be rejected,” said Executive Director Hugh de Kretser.
“It is vital that there is strong and effective legal protection against the harm that flows from racist hate speech. These proposals would tip the balance far too much in favour of allowing harmful vilification.”
Organisations and individuals across the country are currently preparing submissions to the government over the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
If you would like to make a submission,
you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Submissions must be received by 30 April 2014.