Right’s crusade to let hate speech off the leash resumes

The Australian newspaper has reopened the campaign to scrap section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) following a complaint against its cartoonist Bill Leak.

Leak depicted a drunk Aboriginal man who did not know the name of his son, playing to an appalling racist stereotype. It is simply astounding that he attempted to defend his cartoon as a serious response to abuse of Aboriginal kids in NT’s Don Dale Detention Centre.

Such explanations of the problems in Aboriginal communities, that “come back to the parents”, as Leak put it, have been a cornerstone of racist government policies such as the NT Intervention, which blame Aboriginal people themselves for decades of inter-generational poverty and racism.

The renewal of anti-18C campaign follows Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s own attempt to scrap the laws in September. Bernardi gathered the support of 20 Coalition Senators, as well as David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Derryn Hinch and the One Nation Senators, for a private members bill to remove the words “offend and insult” from 18C.

Although Turnbull initially dismissed Bernadi’s campaign as “not a priority”, he has left the door open after the Leak incident, saying it is now “a very legitimate area of discussion”.

Earlier this year Bernardi seized on another 18C case involving Queensland University of Technology’s indigenous Oodgeroo Unit. The unit helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with academic, personal and cultural support. After an Aboriginal staff member requested that students leave a computer lab within the unit, the students put racist posts on Facebook, referring to “ITT Niggers” and inquired sarcastically about where the “white supremacist” computer room was. Having not returned to work since the incident, the Aboriginal worker brought a claim under the RDA.

In response to the QUT incident, Bernardi attacked 18C on the fanciful grounds that it is part of a so-called “grievance industry” catering to minorities in Australia.

The implication is that cases being brought under RDA aren’t really racial vilification, but are an overly sensitive and politically correct response.

Free speech

Bernardi and other conservatives claim 18C is a threat to freedom of speech. He has sought to build his case by piggy-backing on the government’s anti-Muslim racism, claiming that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons would be banned in Australia under the RDA. This is simply not the case due to exemptions under 18D of the RDA that cover artworks and political debate. Bill Leak’s cartoon stands almost no chance of being found to breach the Act for the same reason.

The debate over 18C has wrong-footed some prominent voices. Both human rights lawyer Julian Burnside and journalist David Marr have supported the idea that 18C restricts free speech. Commenting on the case where Andrew Bolt was found guilty of racial vilification under the RDA in 2014, Burnside recommended that the case should have alternatively have been pursued for “libel”, damages for publishing false information. But such a position misses the point—Bolt’s remarks were not mere instances of “wrong information”, they racially vilified Aboriginal people.

The Liberals and other conservatives have no commitment to free speech. There has been a resounding silence from Turnbull and others defending free speech in the face of the Fair Work Commission’s decision to ban the words “scab” and “rat” from union picket lines. This is a timely reminder that both the hard right within the Liberal party and the more moderate elements are united in their attitude on what sections of society deserve free speech.

Although 18C cannot guarantee protection against racism, proposals to dismantle it on the basis that the rights of racists are under threat should be rejected. Attacks on 18C form part of ongoing attacks by conservatives against the remnants of a relatively progressive era in Australian politics, marked by support for multicultural programs and departure from assimilation as official policy in Aboriginal affairs.

Introduced under the Whitlam government in 1975, the RDA reflected a period of powerful anti-racist struggles in Australia, such as the Freedom Rides in 1965 and the Springboks tour protests against South African apartheid. After the National Inquiry into Racist Violence, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and the Multiculturalism and the Law Report found increased levels of racist speech and violence, especially towards Aboriginal people section 18C and 18D in 1995 became law.

Even though Turnbull has tried to distance himself from Bernardi over the issue of 18C, racial vilification remains a core promise of the current Turnbull government. State-sanctioned torture of refugees through offshore detention and a steady stream of Islamophobia, are where Turnbull is most assertive. Grassroots mobilisations against Turnbull’s racist and anti-union policies can stop the Liberals. They will also help marginalise Bernardi, and his efforts to beat down anti-racist programs and any legal protections in whatever way he can.

By Jasmine Ali


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