The Liberals’ moves to water down the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) will give confidence to racists everywhere. Attorney General George Brandis has cited the court finding against notorious right-wing media celebrity Andrew Bolt in 2011 as the trigger for the changes.
The left should oppose the changes to the RDA. But the real issue at stake is not the detail of the legislation, but the Liberals’ desire to give greater confidence to bigots like Bolt to attack Aboriginal people, Muslims, immigrants and refugees. Brandis’s widely circulated comment that “people do have a right to be bigots” will help make racism more acceptable.
Racism in Australia remains a fact of life. The official racism promoted through the vilification of asylum seekers and the discrimination against Aboriginal people through the NT Intervention is breeding a rise in racism more generally. The last few years have seen increased cases of racist abuse on buses and public transport. Racial discrimination against migrants has increased too, according to a Monash University study released in March. Forty-one per cent of non-English speaking migrants reported racial discrimination within the last 12 months.
So it’s no surprise that Aboriginal activists and ethnic community groups have come out strongly in opposition to the move.
Brandis and Abbott have been left completely isolated, with even right-wing Aboriginal figures like Liberal MP Ken Wyatt and Warren Mundine voicing opposition to the changes.
Brandis has hidden behind rhetoric about promoting “freedom of speech”. But tolerating racist bigotry does not simply mean allowing debate. Increases in hate speech have been shown to lead directly to an increase in violent racist attacks and hate crimes. This is precisely what happened when Pauline Hanson began her racist diatribes in the late 1990s.
Instead of recognising this, some on the left have bought the idea this is a genuine debate about free speech. Antony Loewenstein wrote in The Guardian that he supported changes to the RDA because, “we owe it to our democracy to defend the rights of the most offensive people in our community”.
But concern for free speech is the last thing on the Liberals’ minds. This government is already a byword for secrecy and intolerance for dissent. Abbott has no time for free speech at the ABC, denouncing it as un-Australian. A renewed clampdown will see public servants posting criticism of the government on social media, even in their own time, face the sack. Abbott has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide information about asylum boats—even moving to shut down an independent inquiry into Reza Barati’s death on Manus Island.
As long as the mainstream media is controlled by big business and the rich genuine freedom of speech will not exist. Instead right-wing comment like Andrew Bolt’s is given saturation coverage. His columns are run in the highest circulation newspapers in the country, syndicated across Rupert Murdoch’s media empire that controls 70 per cent of Australia’s newspapers.
Yet dissenting views are almost totally locked out. The recent March in March protests for instance were all but completely ignored by the mainstream media—despite being some of the largest protests since the Howard years.
The left should not defend the right of racists and the likes of Andrew Bolt to spread their ideas. Gaining them greater leeway to say whatever they like will not open any greater space for anti-racists and the left.
There is no justification for changes to the Act. George Brandis has attacked the current provisions for penalising racial abuse, “merely because it might hurt the feelings of others”.
But the current Act already contains free speech exemptions. Anything said “reasonably and in good faith” in the course of debate, or which is “a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest” is allowed. Only the most extreme racist abuse will fail these tests.
Andrew Bolt’s case itself shows this. Bolt only lost because he was found to have made claims that were clearly untrue, falsely accusing a series of Aboriginal activists and academics of adopting an Aboriginal identity to boost their careers. The judge found that what he said was similar to defamation.
Yet the Coalition wants to remove any legal restriction on racism in public debate. Anything said “in the course of participating in the public discussion” would be exempted.
Using the courts
Brandis’ proposals need to be defeated. But while defending the RDA, we also need to recognise that the courts and racial vilification laws are not an effective way to genuinely push back racism. Less than 5 per cent of the complaints lodged under the RDA make it to court, and most of those that do fail. Even Pauline Hanson had a complaint against racist comments she made about Aboriginal people dismissed in court.
Only those that can afford lawyers, and the time to sit through often lengthy legal hearings, can take complaints to trial.
To fight racism effectively, we need to target the governments, politicians and mainstream media that are its main source. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison are doing more than almost anyone else to make racism more acceptable, through their vilification of refugees as criminals and some kind of threat to society. The NT Intervention and the return of paternalist policies have encouraged racist views that blame Aboriginal people themselves for their own poverty.
The Racial Discrimination Act is not going to stop any of this. That requires mass movements and grassroots campaigning to challenge racism and the institutions that foster it.
By James Supple