Senate debates

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Racial Discrimination Act

8:25 pm

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I am rising to thank the community for a job well done. Through resolute and strong community action, we have seen off a threat to fundamental decency in Australia and won the battle, at least for now. So it was during the winter recess that many in Australia rejoiced to hear Prime Minister Tony Abbott finally announce the shelving of his government's plans to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act. Mr Abbott's government had planned to reduce existing protections against racially-motivated hate speech. Throughout Australia, many rallied to oppose this. The government's proposed changes would have given a green light to racism in our communities and provided succour and encouragement to careless, vociferous, belligerent commentators like Andrew Bolt. Indeed, the government's proposed legislation could have accurately been called the 'Andrew Bolt Protection Bill'.

Following a humiliating court case in 2011, Andrew Bolt has been wanting a freer rein to peddle his opinions, without the irksome restrictions of the Racial Discrimination Act requiring him to be accurate or show good faith. For the sake of 'accuracy', it is worth revisiting the Federal Court case of Eatock v Bolt—and Justice Bromberg's conclusions about Andrew Bolt's journalistic writings, which gave impetus to the Abbott government and their backers' most recent attacks on the Racial Discrimination Act.

Andrew Bolt wrote articles that were found by the judge to be not only reasonably likely to offend but also reasonably likely to insult, humiliate and intimidate fair-skinned Aboriginal people. And Bolt was unable to take advantage of the exemptions for 'fair comment' and 'genuine purpose' in section 18D of the act because Justice Bromberg concluded that the articles were not written 'reasonably and in good faith', as the exemptions would have required. Ouch! The articles included untruthful facts and the use of inflammatory and provocative language.

The government has been wanting to give even more power to people like Andrew Bolt—powerful people who already have media megaphones to ensure their opinions are heard. And to do this the government was willing to strip away the protections of ordinary people—in some cases very vulnerable people—who should be able to go about their lives in Australia, free from the fear of racial hate speech. In defending the actions of the government, the Attorney-General, George Brandis, maintained that the government has no role in protecting people from what he flippantly described as 'hurt feelings'.

Since then, the Attorney General has had the opportunity to read more than 5,000 submissions sent to him about the proposed changes. Many of those submissions would have informed him of the lived experience of people who have come face to face with racism on a regular basis. We do not know how many of those 5,000 submissions were against the changes, as the Attorney General refused to tell us. But we do know, given the strength of public opposition, that the vast majority did not support the government's proposed changes. If he has had an opportunity to consider those submissions with humility, I wonder whether the Attorney-General now realises that racism is not just a matter of 'hurt feelings'. There is overwhelming evidence that racist abuse attacks the core of a person's sense of self and wellbeing. Report after report demonstrates that racial slurs can have debilitating existential and mental health consequences for those who have been targeted, even to the point of suicide.

Allowing racial abuse attacks the core of our social cohesion, too. Giving the go-ahead to bigotry sends an insidious message to our community that this kind of behaviour is acceptable—allowing hate and intolerance to grow—where responsible leadership would nurture the opposite. The great news, though, is that community action on this issue has shown convincingly that I am not alone when I say this is not the kind of Australia I want to live in. People in the legal profession, human rights experts and mental and public health professionals have all objected to weakening laws against racial vilification.

People from every corner of this country—from many cultural backgrounds—have united against the government's plan to weaken protections against hate speech. The Attorney-General's exposure draft was met with vehement criticism and, in many cases, utter disbelief. It propelled the community into action. Letters and emails were written, phone calls made, petitions signed, events organised and many connected, shared and united with others in their local area. The message and the outcome could not be clearer: Australians are better and bigger than this.

Tonight I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge some of those who helped to achieve this wonderful result.    Erin Chew and Kingsley Liu of Project 18C worked tirelessly across the country, asking local councils to move motions showing their support for leaving the Racial Discrimination Act intact. As a result of their work, 70 local councils nationwide, representing over seven million constituents, were prepared to move beyond their usual comfort zone of rates, roads and rubbish to move a motion in favour of decency and protection against racial abuse for their residents—showing true leadership. And there are likely to be many more in coming months.

I met with members of first peoples and multicultural and ethnic groups from all over Australia who came to the parliament. I also met with representatives of South Australian multicultural and community organisations who met with me in my electorate office earlier this year. Meeting with and listening to these unique and diverse Australians helped to me to better understand how the Racial Discrimination Act is not just words on paper but actually a living law which offers them real and valuable protection from the degrading and hurtful racism that they or their friends and family may experience in their daily lives in Australia.

I would like to thank Kahli, who sent me the submission she made in relation to the government's proposed changes. She told the Attorney General:

You will not have witnessed strangers on buses shouting abuse and physically intimidating and threatening a mother for singing to her child in another language.

You will not have experienced the horror of watching men waving a knife about while harassing a group of students on a tram for speaking amongst their own group in Chinese.

You do not see the threats and insults experienced by everyday Australians just trying to go about their everyday lives.

There is another person I would like to acknowledge—among the many who contributed to this result—and that is the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane. Dr Soutphommasane has been a staunch and vocal advocate for the multicultural community, in the face of political pressure, and I greatly admire his resolve and commitment to the values of diversity and respect that he represents.

At the height of the campaign against the changes earlier this year, polling showed nine in 10 Australians believe it 'should be unlawful to 'offend, insult or humiliate somebody based on their race'. Recent polling shows that 83 per cent of people agree with the government's decision to drop the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Australians have said a clear and resounding 'no' to racism.

Another person, Vivien, exemplifies this view, and she shared her submission to the Attorney General with me as well. She wrote:

We are all citizens of this amazing world together and I love the diversity we all represent.

We all come from somewhere and each have a story.

Let's work together to ensure we look beyond any form of bigotry by demonstrating zero tolerance to those who would give protection to bigots ...

I want to express thanks to all people in our world for their journey. Without them, I would not be who l am.

The Australian Greens believe in an inclusive, welcoming and caring community where every person is valued and accepted for exactly who they are and can participate fully in the life of the nation. Bigotry and racism undermine this possibility.

The Australian Greens celebrate multiculturalism as one of Australia's greatest assets. The Racial Discrimination Act means that all Australians, no matter their skin colour or heritage, are protected by the law from racially-motivated hate speech and action—and it is crucial that we keep it this way. We must remain vigilant. What the government have tried once they are likely to try again. They still have powerful mates who want the change—people like Andrew Bolt and their friends in the Institute of Public Affairs. And South Australian Senator Bob Day of Family First has made it very clear he will pick up the cudgels of this 'It's a right to be a bigot' cause. So we must remain ready to again defend our protections against hate speech if it becomes necessary. But in the meantime across Australia people have come together, united to prove that we are bigger than bigotry. I congratulate the community. Because we have met this challenge we are now even stronger than we were before. (Time expired)