PROPOSED CHANGES TO THE RDA THREATEN RACIAL COHESION

Posted on 25 March 2014

The elected representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples says Federal Government plans to abolish important legislative protections for the racially vulnerable threaten decades of hard work to build positive race relations in Australia.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress) rejects the government’s Freedom of Speech (Repeal of S. 18D) Bill 2014, which seeks to amend the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Attorney General George Brandis released the Bill today after its endorsement by the Coalition party room.

Congress has pursued a vigorous campaign to dissuade federal parliamentarians from watering down the nation’s racial discrimination laws.

“Standing proudly alongside representatives of Australia’s Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities, Congress has argued the views and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples strongly to Government,” said Congress Co-Chair Kirstie Parker.

“We are horrified to consider the kind of Australia that could grow out of what is now being proposed.”

“We know intimately the impact that racist abuse has on our peoples. It undermines our sense of personal security and safety, can disenfranchise us even further from the rest of society, and literally makes us sick.”

“The Parliament would make history of entirely the wrong kind if it moved to protect racist attacks masquerading as public commentary or debate. There is no nobility and no greatness in placing unlimited rights to free speech above the already limited rights of the vulnerable to be free from racist abuse.”

Ms Parker said that “we must not exclude public discussions, broadcasts and publications from common decency and current standards enshrined in legislation.”

“It is beyond comprehension that the Government would openly champion a single commentator, Andrew Bolt, found by a court to have dishonoured the RDA by publishing articles that contained ‘erroneous facts, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language’; used ‘extensive’ mockery and derision; were ‘cynical’ in tone; and contained ‘gratuitous’ references to colour.”

In his judgment in Eatock v Bolt (2011), Justice Bromberg said it was significant that ‘that young Aboriginal persons or others with vulnerability in relation to their identity, may be apprehensive to identify as Aboriginal or publicly identify as Aboriginal, as a result of witnessing the ferocity of Mr Bolt’s attack on the individuals dealt with in the articles’.

Ms Parker said other worrying proposed changes included a new ‘ordinary and reasonable person’ test that was undefined and would almost certainly become a loophole for perpetrators of racial abuse.

“Congress appeals to all fair-minded Australians to speak out against the proposed changes by making a submission to the Government before the 30 April deadline, and for all federal parliamentarians to reject them as they currently stand,” she said.

The coalition of peak ethnic and community groups, of which Congress is a member of, will meet in Sydney later this week to seek more information and determine the full impact of these amendments.

BACKGROUND:

At present, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes it unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people on the basis of race, colour or national or ethnic origin. Section 18C is currently balanced by section 18D, which exempts artistic works, statements, publication, discussion or debate in the public interest, fair and accurate reporting, and fair comment if the comment is an expression of a genuinely held belief.

The Government’s Freedom of Speech (Repeal of S. 18D) Bill 2014 seeks to repeal section 18C of the Act, as well as sections 18B, 18D, and 18E. It seeks to insert a new section that omits the words ‘offend’, ‘insult’ and ‘humiliate’, retains ‘intimidate’, and adds a narrowly-defined ‘vilify’, as well as exempts ‘words, sounds, images or writing 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’.