Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Racial Discrimination Act 1975

3:33 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | Hansard source

I want to applaud Senator Colbeck's statements about the behaviour in this place and I am looking forward to hearing silence from the other side of the chamber during debates from now on.

One of the problems with having a consultation is that you may hear things you do not want to hear. A second problem is that it is particularly difficult to consult when you have already gone out publicly and committed yourself to making the change—and not just committed yourself to making the change but celebrated the fact that, in the opinion of the decision maker, that change will permit behaviours that many people are quite concerned about.

We now have a process in place and I am pleased that we also now have an exposure draft. That will encourage more people to come forward to put their views. The exposure draft in itself raises some issues, however. Senator Singh has already pointed out that the definitions in the exposure draft are very narrow and that the parameters for what constitutes a breach have been considerably tightened. That is a major concern. The proposal has very much reduced the range of behaviours considered to be inappropriate under the vilification process.

The implication of this proposal is that our community thinks it would be completely okay for words and actions to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate'. Those are the current words in the legislation. They are the current words the minister has committed to changing. That is clearly on the record. I am sure that there will be a range of organisations, community groups and individuals who will take up the opportunity through the consultation process to remind the minister, the department and the government that we live in a society which has, for many years, operated with the understanding that words or actions that humiliate, insult, intimidate or offend are not appropriate.

On one side of the argument you have an acceptance that such behaviour is not something that makes people feel safe or secure. It is not something that allows them to feel as though they are respected in our community. After all, that is the intent of the legislation—to ensure that every person in our community is safe, is secure and is respected. On one side you have that. On the other side there is an absolute commitment to free speech.

I think this is an important opportunity for us to weigh up, as a community, what we want Australia to be like. So far, I am pleased to say, everybody in this debate appears to be falling over themselves to openly commit that they are completely opposed to racism in our community. That is a good thing. It has given us a chance to reaffirm that. But the second point is: where in our community and where in each of us individually do we see the balance between our right to free speech—to say whatever we want to say about whomever we want—and the absolute, intrinsic right of people to feel safe, respected and secure?

One of the clear intents of the current legislation is to raise awareness in our wider community and to show everybody in our country and internationally that we have a society that values human beings and that human beings cannot be discriminated against while they are living in Australia. We pride ourselves on that. In fact, we go overseas and tell other countries about how they should operate in this way. What we are saying by opening this debate—by the exposure draft and the consultation in a process where the minister has already made a public commitment that he will make a change—is that, in that area, we are opening up the doors for people to question just how strongly we value these commitments that we have made over many years.

I think it is incredibly important that the whole issue of vilification be understood and that we have a debate about what that means. I also think that we should really see whether we want to limit any kind of threat of people being physically afraid. We have so much evidence, and in so much work we do here in the Senate we find out about the damage that is inflicted on other people in our community. It is not just physical. (Time expired)


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