WORDS | Raelee Lancaster
In August 2009, Andrew Bolt, a News Corporation journalist was taken to the Federal Court over his article, ‘White fellas in the Black’. The article questioned the legitimacy of “white Aborigines”, who Bolt claimed were, “representatives of a booming new class of victim you’d never have imagined we’d have to support with special prizes and jobs.”
Fredrick Toben, founder of the web and print publication, the Adelaide Institute, served a prison sentence in Germany in the 1990s, and again in Australia in 2009 after he was court ordered to refrain from posting discriminatory words on his website. Toben is a staunch Holocaust denier, claiming the number of Jewish people murdered by the Nazi’s was “exaggerated.” His supporters, however, argue he is merely exacting his right to freedom of speech.
This same argument is being used by Australia’s Attorney-General, George Brandis and Prime Minster, Tony Abbott, an attempt to justify the Federal Government’s move to repeal s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) (RDA). In an address to the Senate, Brandis said that people, “have the right to be bigots…In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive, insulting or bigoted.” A spokesperson for the Prime Minister stated that the Coalition wish to repeal Section 18C of the RDA because “it enables the censorship of free speech”.
S.18C states that it is unlawful for any person to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.” The Government’s plans would remove all but “intimidate” from this section, thereby limiting offences to “physical harm.” The proposed changes would therefore exclude acts of emotional or physiological harm. This is particularly concerning given that, in Australia, verbal abuse is the most common form of racism.
Under the proposed changes, it will be unlawful for a person to racially discriminate if the act is likely to “vilify another person, or a group of persons”. In the Macquarie Dictionary, vilify means to “speak evil or, defame”. However, the RDA’s definition of vilify is notably different, being defined as inciting, “hatred against a person or a group of persons”. This narrow scope again raises concerns that verbal abuse may no longer be considered an offence under the RDA.
Indeed this is certainly the opinion of Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, who commented on the changes. “The bill reduces the level of protection by providing a narrow definition of vilification and…intimidation,” she said, “It is not clear why intimidation should not include psychological and emotional damage that can be caused by racial abuse.”
Further to these concerns are the government’s plans to allow racial discrimination, “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.”
Simon Rice, director of Law Reform and Social Justice at ANU argued that these changes would be “the closest we’ve come to unconstrained racist speech in 20 years—since before the current law was enacted.”
Unsurprisingly, Andrew Bolt supports these proposed changes. He stated that they would uphold “the freedom of every Australian to speak freely, read broadly and decide for themselves”.
However, support for these changes is not widespread, with concerns even being raised from within the Cabinet. They are therefore unlikely to pass through both houses of Parliament. Commentators are now left wondering what the compromise is likely to be.