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George Brandis's doublespeak on changes to the Racial Discrimination Act

Senator WRIGHT:  Yesterday I was gobsmacked as I watched the Attorney-General unveil a proposal that he described as 'the strongest protections against racism that have ever appeared in any Commonwealth act'. I was gobsmacked because as I was listening to what he was proposing the reality of the proposal bore absolutely no resemblance to that claim. George Orwell would certainly recognise the doublespeak that we are hearing here: 'Weak is strong. Racism will set you free.'

These proposed changes from the Attorney-General will actually see a fundamental weakening of the laws which prevent racism in our society-and the Greens will have none of it. Firstly, the Attorney-General proposes to take away the current protections in the Racial Discrimination Act set out in section 18C which make it unlawful to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate' a person on the basis of their race. Instead, he will substitute a much higher bar to be met before someone can claim protection from the law. He will require 'vilification', which is narrowly defined to mean only inciting hatred against a person or group of persons. It is about inciting hatred of others; it is not about the effect on the person being vilified. He will require 'intimidation', with that only meaning a fear of physical harm. Therefore, he is leaving out psychological and emotional abuse, which we know from people who experience these things is often much more damaging. In these so-called strongest protections in Commonwealth law such behaviour will not even be caught up as a criminal offence. It will remain a civil offence. So the bar will be higher but the penalties will be no tougher.



Finally, just in case someone may get caught up in this scheme, there will be extraordinarily broad exemptions which will make it virtually impossible to take action against anyone who does meet this high threshold anyway because the section will not apply to:

... words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated-

it is hard to imagine how you could communicate words that do not fit within those categories-

in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.

I think the exemptions have left no stone unturned.

These exemptions are so broad it will be impossible to distinguish between legitimate debate and hate speech. There is no requirement for reasonableness or good faith. And there is no requirement to consider the effects of the vilification from the point of view of the person being vilified. Without any definition of public discussion, these exemptions could even include a water cooler debate at a workplace. Yet we have the Attorney-General's constantly repeated claim that he is offering the 'strongest protections against racism that have ever appeared in any Commonwealth act'.

The Human Rights Law Centre has said this claim is astonishing and not backed by any basic analysis. They say that 'these changes substantially weaken the existing protection'. That is what the community is also saying. That is why people are up in arms and so are organisations like the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, along with representatives from Australia's Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities, just to name some of them. That is because they know the experience of racial abuse and discrimination on a daily basis. They know the consequences-eroding of sense of self, wellbeing and worth-in Australia.

Let us remember that Justice Bromberg, in the celebrated Eatock v Bolt case, said that it was significant 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 attacks on the individuals dealt with in the articles.

This change would ensure that similar attacks will happen in Australia in the future and there will be many more of them, with devastating consequences for the people targeted. The Australian Greens are proud to stand up with multicultural groups to say no to these proposed repeals. We can reconcile freedom of speech with the freedom to participate fully and safely in our community without being racially abused. The Australian Greens will reject this shameful proposal.

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