By Hashani Dissanayake
While not explicitly enshrined in a constitutional or statutory declaration of rights, the right to freedom of speech is a deeply ingrained part of Australian culture and one that we, as Australian citizens, are understandably proud of. However, like all freedoms in a democratic nation, it is a right that cannot be absolute and must be qualified in the interests of those that it seeks to liberate.
It is in the name of freedom of speech that Attorney-General George Brandis seeks to amend the current form of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to give individuals the right to speak offensively and insultingly of their fellow Australians. While there is an argument that a person’s right to free speech should not be curtailed by the chance that it may offend someone, does this proposed freedom come at too high a cost?
Earlier this year, Senator Brandis announced proposals to repeal a key section of the Racial Discrimination Act, (section 18c) which currently makes it illegal to publicly offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on racial grounds. The amendments essentially would only prohibit vilification and intimidation on the basis of race and thus, make it lawful to racially discriminate in the form of insulting, offending or humiliating others.
While the legislation in its current form allows individuals of different backgrounds a form of protection from racial discrimination, the proposed amendments offer little in the way of safety from racial attacks. The actual victim of the crime, the individual who is discriminated against, is almost entirely ignored in this new test. Furthermore, the Act dictates that the assessment of whether an act comes within the ambit of the section is “to be determined by the standards of an ordinary member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group”. By doing so, the right to make this determination is taken away from the particular group of people who have experience of and appreciate the disastrous effects of racism on the individual and their culture itself.
In a country that prides itself on multiculturalism and being a rich, hot-pot of cultures and customs, it’s laws like this that uphold the promise that each Australian makes to their neighbours to respect and live harmoniously side by side. A recent report - Mapping Social Cohesion by the Scanlon Foundation has revealed that a shocking 19% of Australians were discriminated against because of their skin colour, ethnic origins or religious beliefs last year. This rise in racism and the large number of high profile racially motivated attacks in the past decade alone stand as a testament to the need for such protections in our legislation.
As Australian Psychological Society President Tim Hannan said recently, ‘any weaking of the law could inadvertently legitimise racist behaviour’, perhaps even cause race riots.
What message will this send to young people in schools and playgrounds? Will it teach them that it’s okay to ridicule someone because of the colour of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the languages they speak? In a culture where bullying and cyberbullying is so prevalent, is condoning these types of actions really the best way to make Australia a welcoming and harmonious environment for youth to grow up in?
In order to make Australia a home that is free of racism to all its citizens, regardless of race or religion, we need to be taking significant steps forward in legislating against hate speech, not moving backwards. The proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act are NOT the way to strengthening social cohesion and creating a better Australia for all.
Shaun Wickenden attacked David Chia who was sitting in a car with his girlfriend outside his house in Pymble in the early hours of the morning. Amid racial slurs, Mr Wickenden attacked Mr Chia who sustained a broken leg, partial facial nerve palsy and neck and shoulder injuries.
21-year-old Melbourne student Nitin Garg was fatally stabbed by a 15-year-old youth who tried to steal his mobile phone while he was walking through a park on his way to work. Mr Garg died shortly after from his injuries sustained.
Two young women aged 17 and 21 brutally attacked a partially blind, 77 year old man on a bus in a racially motivated attack in the Gold Coast. Both women have been charged with serious assault.