Monday Night Q&A: Should The Racial Discrimination Act be rewritten?

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Section 18C of The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes discriminating against or insulting someone on the basis of their ethnicity or race unlawful. The Abbott government attempted to repeal 18C in 2014, raising concerns that certain clauses ‘unreasonably limit freedom of speech’. The motion was dumped because it was thought the repeal would damage the Government’s relationship with the Muslim community. Now calls for the repealing of 18C have sprung up again from the Liberal party. What do our student pollies think?

Hugo James, Vice President of MQU Labor

The current argument constructed by the right to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination act is as steady as Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. It is built on foundations of factual inaccuracies, fear, ignorance at best and blatant bigotry at worst.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was pushed through during the Prime Ministership of Gough Whitlam. This legislation furthered Australia’s values of egalitarianism and multiculturalism throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st century, with little public opposition.

However, the far-right soon found a strong figurehead to follow into battle against 18C, after 30 years of silent suffering and under infringements of their ’right to be bigots’: Andrew Bolt. In 2009, Bolt published two articles that implied that ‘light-skinned’ Aboriginals only identified as Aboriginal for personal, political and career gain. The articles were headlined ‘It’s so hip to be black’ and ‘White fellas in the black’.

By the titles alone, these articles could be considered to possess racist connotations, however Bolt claimed that his articles were done in good faith, and that he was attempting to promote discussion in the public sphere.

But Bolt was found guilty of breaching 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, because throughout the two articles he presented 19 factual errors as ’proof’ that ’fair-skinned’ Aboriginals were only identifying as Aboriginal to gain personal or career gain.

These factual errors ranged from arguing that one individual, Ms. Cole, ‘was raised by her “English” mother’, which was incorrect, as she was predominantly raised by her Aboriginal Grandmother, which helped her form her strong Aboriginal identity, to arguing that another individual, Ms Heiss, used her Aboriginal identity to gain a ‘plum job’ reserved for Aboriginals at three firms. This was also found to be incorrect, as two of these jobs were not reserved for Aboriginals, but rather encouraged Aboriginal people to apply, and the other was a voluntary unpaid position.

However, when given these facts, the Right block their ears. They claim that this is cultural Marxism at its finest and their ‘freedom of speech’ is being infringed.

‘Freedom of speech’ does not translate to ‘freedom of unchallenged speech’ and certainly not the freedom to publish known factual errors to deliberately attack a group based on their ethnicity and skin colour.

Also, 18D, sister to section 18C, already exists to help protect our freedom of speech, and even our right to offend in Australia. 18D states that you are indeed free to offend, insult, and humiliate others if you can provide evidence that it occurred as ’part of a discussion or debate’ that has a ’genuine purpose in the public interest’.

So when the right claim Bolt and others have their freedom of speech threatened through 18C, they are blatantly unaware that the real issue with Bolt’s statement was that he attempted to present knowingly factual errors in major publications in order to instigate a derogatory discussion and insulted Aboriginal individuals based on their skin colour and ethnicity.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and section 18C, are incredibly important, helping us build a tolerant and safe society for all Australians regardless of their sex, gender, religion and ethnicity. Now, more importantly than ever, is no time to regress on legislation that continues to achieve so much for minorities in Australia. While the far-right of the Liberal party may attempt to persuade us that our ‘politically correct’ culture is robbing us of free speech, you are completely within our rights to tell them that their entire flagship case regarding Andrew Bolt is built on factual inaccuracy, and that they can kindly fuck off.

Satyajeet Marar, Member of the Macq Liberal Club

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it an offense to ‘offend, insult or humiliate’ someone on the grounds of race. At first glance, this doesn’t seem so bad – we all hate racism and insulting or humiliating someone is a dick move. But some of the worst laws in history have been passed under the guise of good intentions with little regard for whether their outcomes are what we as a free society want.

The first problem is with the word ‘offend’. People can be ‘offended’ for a number of highly subjective reasons. Many people are offended purely because another person holds a contrary view. A French school recently came under attack from self-professed ‘social justice warriors’ for producing special hand bands to be worn by muslim pupils.

This was quickly compared, rather offensively, to nazi practices. What they failed to mention was that the bands were to be worn only during lunchtimes and served the practical purpose of letting canteen staff know which students required a halal meal. The ineptitude and incompetence of the offended here is something I personally find deeply offensive, but I can still respect their right to spew their views in an open forum and wish that the same courtesy could be reciprocated.

Closer to home, a traveller was fined $5000 for calling a security guard he had a bad experience with a ‘Singaporean prick’. Though this was obviously rude and crossed the lines of human decency, it does seem strange to fine someone a month’s wages simply for adding a nationality to the start of a commonplace insult. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

In a particularly abhorrent case, a Queensland university student expressed his disapproval of ‘indigenous only’ computer labs at his university – labs funded by yet off-limits to the majority of the mostly non-indigenous student body – by posting on Facebook that his university had reintroduced segregation. Aside from being technically correct, no sane or rational person would see this as a public display of racism whether they agreed with the sentiment or not.

The student in question is now in court facing a legal challenge from an offended professor that could cost him tens of thousand dollars in legal fees at a time when he simply wants to continue his studies unmolested. He is a working university student of modest means just like you or I and this case illustrates that a nightmare situation could happen in a supposedly ‘free’ country like ours to any of us – just for expressing a view that does not sit well with the agenda of the offended.

To make matters worse, the Human Rights Commission, which is meant to uphold people’s basic rights, upheld the complaint without sufficient investigation and waited until a few days before the date of their prosecution to let the student know he was being prosecuted. These events should offend anyone of sensible morals and it is time we repealed an unjust law to make sure they are never repeated.

Repealing 18C would leave intact other sections of the act that make racial vilification an offense – providing sufficient protection to people of any race from foul verbal and physical attacks.

As someone of dark complexion and ethnic background, I have faced my fair share of racism even in our great country. But nothing offends me more than a law which infantalises and patronises people like me while constraining the right to free speech. The Australia I know is so much better than this.