Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act is an important piece of legislation. In particular, Part 2A protects all Australians against racial discrimination by prohibiting offensive behaviour based on racial hated. Such basic protections are fundamental for a multicultural country such as Australia.
Under the Act, it is unlawful for a person to do or say something (other than in private) that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.
Yet there are also exemptions that ensure freedom of expression (or “free speech”) is protected. Artistic works and journalism created reasonably and in good faith are common examples of this.
Together these two sections in the Act – Sections 18C and 18D – ensure a balanced approach to racial discrimination. The courts have consistently interpreted sections 18C and 18D as maintaining a balance between freedom of speech and freedom from racial vilification.
Recently, the Attorney General announced that he plans to repeal some provisions in the Act, stating that the balance has gone too far in protecting people who are targets of racial discrimination at the expense of “free speech”.
All Together Now is extremely concerned that the government is considering changes of this nature. Being the only national charity committed to erasing racism, All Together Now has become aware of numerous instances of people being the targets of racist abuse in Australia.
The recently published Social Cohesion Report by the Scanlon Foundation revealed that one in five individuals surveyed were targets of racial abuse in the past year. This alarming statistic is up from one in eight the previous year and a new high in this annual survey.
Further, there has been a 59% increase in complaints of racial abuse to the Australian Human Rights Commission over the past year, with nearly half of these being complaints about cyber-racism.
On the face of it, it would seem that racism in Australia is on the rise.
Yet only one in ten Australians have strong racist views. A small minority is committing this racist abuse and they appear to be becoming more brazen. This is happening because people are not speaking up and letting perpetrators know that the majority does not share their views.
The effects of racism on individuals are real and lasting. Australian researchers have recently found that there are health impacts on both children and adults who are targets of racism. It affects people’s mental health and their ability to fully participate in society.
By removing people’s fundamental protection from racial hatred under the Act, it will put perpetrators in a stronger position, which can be exploited. Forms of cyber racism and racial abuse that are presently unlawful would become lawful activities. This will particularly affect frequent users of online social media – especially young people.
All the work that has been done over the past four decades to educate Australian people about their rights and responsibilities will be completely undermined under these proposed changes to the Act. Just as we start to gain some ground in helping people to understand they have a right to freedom from race-based hate, this freedom will be eroded.
However, it doesn’t stop there. Repealing provisions in the Act will not only have impacts on individuals and communities – it is also likely to affect the way in which Australia is seen by other countries in our region. The policy position will be heard loud and clear.
Since the new government has taken office, the Prime Minister has told several countries they are good friends of Australia, including Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and India. This appears to be a sound strategy, given a large proportion of Australia’s tourists, international students and skilled migrants originate from these countries.
What will they think, then, when they hear that the government plans to repeal the Act? The recent outreach of “friendship” by our Prime Minister contradicts this policy position.
The Federal Government, lead by the Prime Minister and Attorney General, has committed to repeal provisions of the Act. However, there is still time for them to consult widely before introducing a draft Bill into parliament to effect these changes. This will ensure that that the government’s draft proposal takes into consideration the concerns of those who are most vulnerable to racial abuse.
We are working with other civil society organisations and experts to ensure a coordinated response to the proposed repeal of the Act.