(Transcript from World News Radio)
Australia’s national Indigenous representative body says there have been some compelling submissions made to the federal government arguing against changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Attorney General’s office is accepting submissions until the end of April on its exposure draft which would see Section 18 C of the act repealed.
That’s the section which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person of group of people on the basis of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.
The government believes the act imposes too many restrictions on free speech but critics say it’s only wanting to change the legislation because of a 2011 judgment against the News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt.
Greg Dyett has the details.
Ever since a Federal Court judge ruled that Andrew Bolt had breached the Racial Discrimination Act, Tony Abbott has been determined to right what he regards as a wrong.
The 2009 articles on fair skinned Indigenous people contained what the judge called errors in fact, distortions of truth and inflammatory and provocative language.
Justice Mordy Bromberg stressed that his judgment did not make it unlawful to debate the issue of racial identity.
This is because under the existing provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act it is possible to insult or humiliate people because of their race or colour, without breaking the law, if it is done reasonably and in good faith.
But Justice Bromberg found Andrew Bolt wasn’t acting in good faith – Bolt himself told the court that he knew what he’d written was likely to offend.
In arguing in favour of change, the Attorney-General George Brandis appeared to condone Australians being bigoted when he was asked about it in the Senate.
“Mr President, people do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted. Nevertheless, Senator Peris, through you Mr President may I point out to you that Section 18 C, in its current form does not prohibit racial vilification.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott says sometimes free speech will offend and that can be okay.
“Sometimes, free speech will be speech which upsets people, which offends people. It is in the nature of free speech that sometimes some people will not like it.”
Just as the government has wanted to change the Racial Discrimination Act, a diverse range of groups is just as determined to fight for maintenance of the status quo.
Their activism may have swayed public opinion, with a series of recent polls showing Australians overwhelmingly don’t support the federal government’s proposed amendments.
One of the most prominent cases involving the Act was launched back in 2003 against the Holocaust revisionist Fredrick Toben.
The Federal Court found some of the material on Toben’s website had breached the Act, such as his claim Jews had deliberately exaggerated the number of them killed in the Second World War for financial gain.
Under the proposed changes, critics say claims like that would not be unlawful.
The draft legislation does prohibit vilification.
But this would not apply to “words, sounds, images or writing that are spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”.
The co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Les Malezer, says the changes threaten decades of work at building better race relations in Australia.
His body has been campaigning with representatives of ethnic and religious groups to oppose the amendments.
“It is a common interest. There’s complete agreement amongst all of our groups about how we should be approaching this exercise and that we shouldn’t be supporting the changes that the government is pushing for. And amongst that we’re finding that there’s a lot more common interest that we have to, it’s not just about 18 C of the Racial Discrimination Act but it’s about a view of a strong, tolerant multicultural society in Australia, including respect for the first peoples.”
Lez Malezer is encouraging others who are concerned to make submissions ahead of the April 30 deadline and says he’s heartened by the submissions he’s already seen.
“They’ve all been very strong to say that racial vilification is a very damaging thing, that it can cripple the lives of people. It doesn’t have to be physical harm it can be by abuse, verbal abuse. It can have a big impact upon individuals, young people in particular but also on whole communities. So that’s been very strongly pointed out in the various submissions that we have seen. So we’ve seen some very good arguments based both on the workings of the law but also upon harm that is done to communities where racial vilification occurs.”
Author Arnold Zable is one of a group of 175 authors, artists and publishers who have lodged a submission arguing against the change.
He says the signatories are all mindful of how words can be used in both uplifting and harmful ways.
“As writers we are acutely aware of the power of words to uplift or to humiliate, the power of words to inform, break through ignorance and the power of words to mislead, you know, so I think that when it came to making submissions I think it was beholden upon us to do so, I think it’s our responsibility.”
Geoff Clark was one of the Indigenous people who was targetted by Andrew Bolt’s articles.
Mr Clark has told SBS’ Living Black program that Andrew Bolt lost the case for a combination of reasons, including getting many of his facts completely wrong.
And he says the fact that Bolt and his employer, News Limited, decided not to appeal against the judgment is significant.
“I think it was that combination what was so strong, they chose not to appeal it. So it wasn’t just, I think, the racist nature of the language it was a combination of those things so we brought that about because there were sections in the Act which were used. Now you remove that, I’m sure that there will still be arguments in the future where you know if people are going to be vilifying you, there are going to be arguments but it’s got nothing to do with free or curbing free speech, I think that also was a distortion and that was certainly perpetuated by the Bolt camp.”