Racial discrimination: groups unite against â€˜morally repugnant‘ law changes
Community organisations say Coalition‘s proposed amendments will allow the public humiliation of people because of their race
The Coalition vowed to repeal section 18C of the Act after the federal court found that conservative journalist Andrew Bolt, above, was in breach by publishing articles questioning the motives of fair-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP
Community groups have warned the Abbott government against pursuing â€œmorally repugnantâ€ changes to racial discrimination laws, arguing Australia‘s national interests are being sacrificed to score points in the â€œculture warsâ€.
In a blistering joint statement issued on Tuesday, representatives of the Indigenous, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities vowed to step up their campaign against amendments that would â€œlicense the public humiliation of people because of their raceâ€.
Tony Abbott promised before the election to amend the Racial Discrimination Act in the interests of upholding free speech.
Unhappy with a 2011 federal court ruling about articles by the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, the Coalition vowed to repeal section 18C in its current form. The section makes it unlawful to â€œoffend, insult, humiliate or intimidateâ€ a person or group because of their â€œrace, colour or national or ethnic originâ€.
Fresh speculation about the extent of changes has triggered a joint statement by community leaders expressing their â€œvehement oppositionâ€.
The letter â€“ signed by the National Congress of Australia‘s First Peoples, the Armenian National Committee of Australia, the Arab Council Australia, the Chinese Australian Services Society, the Korean Society of Sydney, the Australian Hellenic Council, the Chinese Australian Forum and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry â€“ urged the government against removing the words â€œoffend, insult, humiliateâ€ from section 18C.
They also reacted angrily to a report in The Australian newspaper suggesting the government was looking at removing the requirement that a defendant must have acted â€œreasonably and in good faithâ€ to be eligible for an exemption under another section of the same law.
â€œIt would send a signal that people may spout racist abuse in public, no matter how unreasonably and dishonestly,â€ Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said in the statement.
â€œIt 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 [relating to the exemptions] might be amended by deleting the threshold of reasonableness and good faith comes as an especially unpleasant surprise to us.â€
A federal court judge in 2011 found that Bolt breached 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act by publishing newspaper articles that questioned the motivations of fair-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal.
According to the federal court‘s ruling, the conduct was not covered by the section 18D exemption for making fair comment in good faith, because the articles â€œcontained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative languageâ€.
Wertheim said the Racial Discrimination Act ought not be changed unless there were â€œtruly compelling reasonsâ€ and the outcome of one contentious case â€“ the one involving Bolt â€“ fell â€œa long way short in that regardâ€.
â€œAustralia‘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 â€˜culture wars‘,â€ he said.
â€œIt will leave a lasting stain on the legacy of the present government if they proceed with this.â€
Wertheim said the law only applied to serious cases and went beyond â€œhurt feelingsâ€. It enabled targeted groups to defend themselves against racial vilification and had â€œnothing to do with limiting free speechâ€, he said.
â€œThe law does not stop anybody from offending, insulting or humiliating others because of their conduct, opinions or beliefs,â€ Wertheim said.
â€œPeople can change their conduct, opinions or beliefs. But the current law does prohibit publicly offending, insulting or humiliating others because of their race, which is something people cannot change. Offending, insulting or humiliating other people because of their race is not about persuasion. It‘s about attacking their human dignity.â€
A spokesman for the attorney general, George Brandis, said the government would not comment on the wording of proposed amendments to meet the objectives of reforming the Racial Discrimination Act.
But he has previously defended the government‘s plans and said he had met with many stakeholders, community groups and interested individuals as part of community consultation.
â€œWhat Mr Abbott and I have said since the election about section 18C is precisely, word-for-word, what we said before the election and that is that we would repeal section 18C in its current form, that we would remove from the Racial Discrimination Act the anti-free speech provisions, which enabled, for example, the journalist Andrew Bolt to be taken to court merely because he expressed an opinion about a matter of public policy which was offensive to some,â€ Brandis said.
â€œWhat we promised to do was to rewrite the law by repealing section 18C in its current form so that it is no longer an impediment to, or a chill factor, upon freedom of speech and that‘s what we‘re going to do.â€
Brandis has faced pressure from the Institute of Public Affairs, a think-tank with strong Liberal party links, to repeal section 18C in its entirety.
The director of development and communications at the Institute of Public Affairs, James Paterson, said last week that the entire section 18C was an â€œexcessive limitation on freedom of speechâ€ and should be repealed to keep the spirit of the election promise.