Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (18c Debate)


March 21, 2017

I am going to put the same question to those on the government benches that we on this side have all been asking—and we still do not have an answer. What do you possibly want people to say that they cannot already say now? I get it: at least some of you want to change 18C because it is about free speech. But what racial hate speech do you consider so acceptable that it is currently being curtailed by 18C?

Today is Harmony Day. It is a day held to celebrate our cultural diversity and respect for everyone who calls Australia home, no matter where we came from. I have always argued we should not just tolerate but embrace our diversity. It is a strength of our multicultural society. Our multiculturalism works because we do not have to choose between our identities. If you are of Egyptian heritage, like me or the member for Cowan, or Greek, Vietnamese, Ethiopian or Lebanese, you should and can be a proud to be Australian and at the same time be proud of your cultural heritage. Yet this government has chosen today, Harmony Day 2017—today of all days—to announce that they are proposing to gut section 18C of the RDA.

They are proposing to gut what has been one of the solid foundations of our successful multicultural society. For over 20 years, section 18C has protected our community against racial hate speech. But over on that side they have selective amnesia. They forget that there is a subsequent section, section 18D, that protects free speech for members of the press, artists, academics and anyone who is genuinely communicating their views in the public interest. Sections 18C and 18D, introduced by the Keating government, survived 11 years of the Howard government and were maintained when Labor returned to power. These governments all understood the need to maintain laws against race hate speech.

I feel sorry for the member for Moore, the previous speaker, because he chaired a committee that made no recommendations for any change to 18C. The proposed change to 18C really is just another destructive obsession of the far right-wingers, who have hijacked this dysfunctional government. They have forced their own Prime Minister to change his position—which, albeit, is not too difficult to do—in spite of his repeated claims, time and time again, that he had no intention to pull apart the laws that have served us so well for decades. These changes remove the clarity achieved through 20 years of judicial decision-making. The PM has been rolled by those who—to use the words of his own Attorney-General—want the ‘right to be bigots’. Was he serious? How ridiculous! How disgusting! And what a complete misunderstanding of the law by the first law officer of this land. No-one has a right to be a bigot. We have a right to free speech and freedom of expression, but that comes with a responsibility to exercise that right with some basic decency. We cannot, under the law, all shout ‘Fire!’ in a cinema. Neither can anyone shout racial abuse without legal consequence. I learnt that in the first year of law school.

This is personal for me and for millions of Australians. As a son of migrants from Egypt, growing up in a housing commission in the seventies and eighties, I experienced racist hate speech firsthand. I have been called a ‘wog’, a ‘sandnigger’ and things that are much worse and that are best not repeated in this place. There is nothing more vile than racism, and there can be no good in allowing it to happen. It is ugly, it is hateful and it shakes the core of one’s being as a human being. It brings the individuals who use it and the society that condones it down into the abyss of hate and division. And of course it severely affects and deeply hurts the victims throughout their lives. It goes against the basic decency and fairness that should be the foremost factor in our relations with each other. Nobody deserves to endure abuse based on their race or ethnicity, and those who use racial slurs as a weapon deserve to be—must be—held to account by the law. That is what this act does. That is what section 18C does, and it has done it so well for decades.

I know that the majority of Australians abhor racism, and section 18C reflects those values. We on this side of the House—Labor—support a modern multicultural Australia where people are not subjected to racism and hate speech without legal consequences. We stand on this principle with multicultural Australia. We wish this was not a fight we had to have in 2017. There are far more vital issues in Australia, which we are focused on—Medicare, and fighting for penalty rates and for access to education and health care. Watering down Australia’s race hate laws will not create a single job, build a single road or benefit our healthcare or education systems.

This Prime Minister is doing nothing to stand up for ethnic communities. But we will oppose hate speech and our voices will join across this land to oppose these unnecessary and ideological changes. We do so because the Racial Discrimination Act makes Australia a better country.