NEWS The Maltese Community Council of Victoria has joined other Australian ethnic communities in strongly denouncing the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act proposed by the Federal Government. In a controversial response to a question put by Labour Senator Nova Peris in the Senate last Monday, Attorney General Senator George Brandis QC defended free speech and his government’s plan to change Australia’s racial discrimination laws.
Maltese Community Council of Victoria
Reacting to the government’s announcement, the Maltese Community Council of Victoria (MCCV) expressed its support for the statements made by other ethnic and religious organisations in condemning the proposed modifications in the Racial Discrimination Act. The MCCV strongly urges the federal Government to withdraw the intended changes and listen to the chorus of objections, which the proposed action has generated from all sectors of the Australian society.
The MCCV firmly opposes the repeal of Section 18C of the Act. Repealing this section would send the message that it would be no longer offensive to use hate speech.
The protection of ‘free speech’ should not be an excuse for making such a drastic change to the Act. There is no such thing as the right to ‘free speech’ without the corresponding obligation to behave in a civilised manner towards other people irrespective of their racial or ethnic background.
As other prominent Australians have pointed out, bigotry simply has no place in the Australian society and should not be potentially facilitated, if not encouraged, by the proposed changes to the race laws. The current provisions are necessary as there can be such a marked disparity in power relationships between the perpetrator of speech that is liable to ‘“offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate”, and its recipients, who are unable to defend themselves for whatever reason.
Members of minority groups are especially vulnerable to such racial attacks because of the lack of social support or even an inadequate command of the English language – the language through which racial prejudice is invariably expressed. Recipients of such an attack are not empowered to respond adequately, and therefore need the full protection of the law.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
The elected representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples issued a strongly worded statement condemning the government’s proposed changes.
“We are horrified to consider the kind of Australia that could grow out of what is now being proposed,” said Ms Kirstie Parker, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. “We know intimately the impact that racist abuse has on our peoples. It… literally makes us sick.”
Ms Parker said it was ”beyond comprehension” that the Abbott government would ”openly champion a single commentator, Andrew Bolt” in watering down the race hate laws.
Indigenous, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities
In a Joint Media Statement published on 18 March, before Senator Brandis’ outburst, representatives of the Indigenous, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities expressed their “vehement opposition” to changes that have been mooted to sections of the Racial Discrimination Act which prohibit public conduct that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or groups because of their skin colour or national or ethnic origin.
The group of representatives was reacting to a story which appeared in The Australian on Tuesday speculating that the Federal government proposes to remove the words “offend, insult, humiliate” from section 18C, as well as removing the requirement that a defendant must have acted “reasonably and in good faith” in order to be covered by the free speech defences available under section 18D.
“These changes would mean that the Federal government has decided to license the public humiliation of people because of their race”, said Peter Wertheim, the Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. “It would send a signal that people may spout racist abuse in public, no matter how unreasonably and dishonestly. It would be astonishing if an Australian government in the 21st century was prepared to embrace such a morally repugnant position. It would be utterly indefensible. The suggestion that section 18D might be amended by deleting the threshold of reasonableness and good faith comes as an especially unpleasant surprise to us”.
The group, which has been pursuing a vigorous campaign to dissuade Federal politicians against any repeal or watering down of Australia’s laws against racial vilification, vowed to step up its activities.
“The Racial Discrimination Act is one of Australia’s most iconic pieces of legislation. It goes to the heart of Australia’s identity as a nation that is both democratic and culturally diverse. The law ought not to be changed unless there are truly compelling reasons. The outcome of one contentious case falls a long way short in that regard”, Mr Wertheim said.
“Australia’s long term national interests in maintaining a harmonious society and the respect of neighbouring countries are being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency in order to score points in the so-called ‘culture wars’. It will leave a lasting stain on the legacy of the present government if they proceed with this”, Mr Wertheim predicted.
“The existing sections 18C and 18D were enacted in1995 after three national inquiries in Australia found that there is a nexus between racially vilifying conduct in public and racially-motivated violence. The two sections strike a careful balance between freedom from racial vilification and freedom of expression”.
Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia
In a Media Release the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia referred to the Attorney-General’s speech in the Senate and stated that his response to the Senate question sent a clear message about the society the Government believes “we want to live in” embodied in the Freedom of Speech Bill 2014.
The bill would repeal nearly the entire Section 18 of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and replace it with provisions geared largely towards protection of free speech at the expense of protection against racial discrimination.
According to FECCA, the most concerning of the proposed changes are the exemptions, now significantly broader and no longer meant to be done “reasonably and in good faith”, that would virtually reduce the provisions to naught. With the public discourse completely excluded from the provisions, what else does the Attorney-General understand by “otherwise than in private”?
“Offend, insult and humiliate” would be replaced with “vilify” complemented by “intimidate”, both defined very narrowly. Finally, the changes would introduce a community test to assess whether an act would constitute vilification or intimidation. Apart from lacking definitional clarity, the test in itself is discriminatory as it implies that a particular group within the Australian community is somehow unequal to ordinary reasonable members of the Australian community.
Over the past months, indigenous and ethnic community organisations have been urging the Government to maintain strong protections against racial vilification and discrimination. With well substantiated concerns repeatedly voiced by people across Australia who have been impacted by racial abuse and hostility, and have had to endure their mental effects, it is extremely disappointing that the only person heard in the debate was Australian journalist Andrew Bolt, who is the only person to have been found guilty of breaching Section 18C.
Framing the debate around one case – in fact, around one person – is inappropriate and disrespectful of many Australians from diverse backgrounds who experience racial vilification and hatred on a day-to-day basis. With the ongoing need for legal provisions, who is going to protect victims when perpetrators of racist hate speech realise that the law is on their side? Are we prepared to deal with the consequences of such a legislative change?
FECCA chair, Mr Joe Caputo urged everyone who believes that Australian society should be free from discrimination, everyone who has experienced or witnessed racial hatred and abuse, to make their views known to the Government as part of the one-month consultation process.
The nature and extent of the proposed changes is such that resistance to them will be fierce, and the Federal Government is assured of continued (and increased) opposition from communities across Australia.
Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria
In its Media Release, the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria stated that one’s freedom ends where racial vilification begins – hence ECCV endorsed religious and ethnic groups coming together across Australia to voice their opposition against the government’s proposed repeal of sections of the Racial Discrimination Act in the name of “free speech.”
Recent reports show that around one in five Australians say they have experienced humiliating and offensive racial abuse including racial slurs or name-calling. Currently section 18C of the Act still tells us that this is unacceptable.
“The proposed repeal of section 18C is a step in the wrong direction. Ethnic communities and people in general need legal protection against vilification, offensive remarks and hate speech,” said ECCV chairperson Joe Caputo.
The Government’s argument that free speech needs to be upheld is understandable but not valid in this case, when sections C and D of the Act already ensure the balance between freedom of speech and protection from racial abuse.
“Who is going to protect victims when offenders realise they are no longer accountable under the law?” asks Mr Caputo.
The ECCV calls on the government to consult with ethnic communities in order to gain an understanding of the levels of racial hatred and vilification experienced by these groups.
People who have had to endure the mental and sometimes physical effects of racial abuse, hostility or even violence need to be consulted about the impact of legislative change.
In 2012-13, the Australian Human Rights Commission received a 59 per cent increase in racial vilification complaints.
Increasing levels of racial abuse is something that ECCV as Victoria’s peak multicultural body has been trying to halt by consulting with police, local government and the community to raise awareness that racial profiling, discrimination and racial vilification is unacceptable and against the existing legislation.
In a recent interview with the ECCV, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane explained why Section 18C should not be repealed. “We have had laws concerning racial vilification for close to 20 years, they have been the expression of our values as a multicultural society that values racial tolerance. It will be important that Australians continue to enjoy effective legislative protections against racial vilification.”
The ECCV supports this position and also the recent joint statement by religious and ethnic organizations including Indigenous, Jewish, Arab, Chinese, Greek, Armenian, Lebanese and Muslim communities against the repeal of sections of the Racial Discrimination Act.
“We call on the Attorney-General George Brandis and the government to reconsider its plans to amend section 18C leaving people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds vulnerable to abuse and without legal protection,” says Mr Caputo.
As a proud supporter of the Australian Human Rights Commission “Racism – It Stops With Me” campaign, the ECCV has and will continue to strongly condemn racism and call for an Australia free of racism.
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