All around Australia, racially oppressed minority communities are celebrating the late night defeat of the federal government’s attempt to weaken section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The bill, which sought to remove the words “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” from the section against racial vilification and replace it with “harass and intimidate” was defeated 31-28 with the support of Labor, the Greens and other small party and independent Senators.
The bid to weaken 18C was central to a virulent campaign by the racist right in the Liberal Party, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, Rupert Murdoch's media empire and a noisy chorus of right-wing radio shock jocks to re-legitimise racism and racist abuse.
This campaign coincides with a rise in racist abuse and violence around Australia. People of colour have been murdered, abused on public transport and in shopping malls, assaulted, spat on and one woman was thrown off a train.
Perversely, the right-wing argued that section 18C was “reverse racism” against white Australians and an intolerable restriction of the right to free speech.
But as Malcolm X famously said: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Murdoch’s rag, the Australian, chose to paint as the “real” oppressed the late cartoonist Bill Leak, who had drawn a string of deeply racist cartoons vilifying and stereotyping Aboriginal communities, and a bunch of over-entitled QUT students who refused to respect an Aboriginal-only computer lab room.
The Socialist Alliance calls out this attack on section 18C for what it is: a racist campaign to legitimise the real resurgence in racial abuse and violence that is currently sweeping through this and other imperialist countries.
Since they were introduced in the early 1990s, these laws have not impeded free speech. Meanwhile, many others have since been passed that have strongly restricted our freedom of speech and assembly and the right to protest.
Section 18D reads: “Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith: (a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or (b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or (c) in making or publishing: (i) a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or (ii) a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.”
Section 18C makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone in public because of their race or ethnicity and the courts have set a very high bar for complaints in their precedents.
The law encourages complaints to be dealt with by conciliation through the Human Rights Commission and only 3% of cases get to court. Nevertheless, the HRC and its president Gillian Triggs have come under heavy attack from the government and the right-wing media simply for doing their job.
The actual numbers of section 18C complaints, while rising sharply since 2011–12, are a tiny fraction of the actual cases of racial vilification taking place. These protections and mediation outcomes ensure that the cases that do result in court action are the result of direct and deliberate racist attacks.
This is because most targets of systemic racism are too disempowered, too uninformed of the law or too intimidated to bring complaints.
The vilification law arose in the wake of independent public inquiries in the 1980s that demonstrated how racial vilification had grave physical consequences for the targets of racism.
Since then there have been many instances of incitement of racial violence by people in positions of power, including radio shock jocks, such as in 2005 in Cronulla, New South Wales. In this notorious racist riot, hundreds of drunk, white hooligans turned violently on any person of colour in the streets of that usually peaceful Sydney suburb.
If the right is allowed to legitimise racial abuse it won't be long before there is another “Cronulla riot”.