From Vic Alhadeff, Chair, NSW Community Relations Commission:
On behalf of the 190 ethnic communities of New South Wales, we urge the Federal Government to withdraw its Exposure Draft of the “Freedom of Speech (Repeal of Section 18C) Bill 2014” and reconsider the entire issue.
Approximately 25 per cent of the people of NSW were born overseas and another 25 per cent have at least one parent born overseas. The representative organisations of a large number of our ethnic and indigenous communities have voiced opposition to the Government’s proposals, while not one has expressed support.
The safeguards currently provided by Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act have been in place for almost 20 years, including during the 11 years of the Howard administration, to give the targets of hate speech a peaceful and civilised avenue of redress. These laws have succeeded in resolving hundreds of cases that would otherwise have been left to fester and to degrade social cohesion and mutual respect.
The current law protects all Australians, not only minority groups. Many Australians have immigrated to this country to escape bloodshed and strife in their countries of origin, often fuelled by racism and bigotry.
We understand the destructive potential of these poisonous passions all too well. Our laws against racial vilification are one of the few inhibitors we possess against the introduction into Australia of the racism which underpins many overseas conflicts and the violence to which it can give rise.
We believe the changes proposed by the government, if passed, will send a dangerous signal that hate speech is sanctioned by the law as a form of freedom of speech, that bigotry has a place in our society.
While we accept fully that this is not the intention of the proposed change that will be the effect. And those so inclined will seize upon it, with unambiguously negative consequences for Australian society. The changes will give succour to those who harbour bigoted views and reassure them that they may bring those views into the public domain, aware that their targets will have no alternative but to suffer in silence or dignify their tormentors with a response.
The practical effect will be that far fewer cases of racist behaviour will be deemed unlawful, and many such cases will not only be excused, but even celebrated as a demonstration of freedom of speech. Even in situations of unambiguous abuse, the victim will be required by law to prove that the abuse may incite a third party to racial hatred or has caused fear of physical harm – extremely narrow and difficult tests to satisfy.
The majority of Australians are committed to racial tolerance; 84 per cent support the notion that we are a multicultural nation, according to a recent Monash University survey. But those who bring diversity to our country will now be more susceptible to racist taunts aimed at their culture, their tradition, their faith, their skin colour. They will be rendered vulnerable to hate speech. Yet a survey by the University of Western Sydney found that more than two-thirds of respondents favoured leaving the current law as it is.
Racism poses a real and present danger and its harms are well documented worldwide. Those harms are far more extensive than those which would ostensibly be protected against under the Exposure Draft. Our government has an abiding duty to make racism socially unacceptable and to provide the targets of racism with a legal and peaceful course of action with which to defend themselves. The proposed changes will take our society in the opposite direction – at great cost to us all.