More than 100 people attended a forum on the federal government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act. The meeting, called by the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council, was held in Northcote Town Hall on April 24.
Attorney-general George Brandis was invited to attend, but did not show up.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told the meeting the government’s planned changes amount to scrapping the existing law against racial vilification. He said this would give a “green light for racism”.
Dreyfus said the government has misrepresented the existing law. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people because of their race, but section 18D protects free speech on racial issues, provided that it is done “reasonably and in good faith”.
Dreyfus said most complaints to the Human Rights Commission are resolved by compulsory conciliation. The commission can order an apology or retraction. There are no costs.
Former president of Liberty Victoria Spencer Zifcak said the current law should be amended. He said it should not be unlawful to “offend”. He quoted former judge James Spigelman, who said: “The freedom to offend is an integral part of freedom of speech.”
However, Zifcak said he disagrees with the government’s proposed changes to the law, which would mean that racist vilification would be permissible in nearly all circumstances.
The government’s proposal removes the requirement for discussion of racial issues to be carried out “reasonably and in good faith”. Zifcak said Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, who was found to have violated the Racial Discrimination Act in 2011, failed this test because his articles attacking nine Aboriginal people contained serious errors of fact.
As a result, the nine people targeted by Bolt were successful in the court case that occurred after conciliation attempted by the Human Rights Commission failed.
Zifcak suggested some possible amendments that would make the law less restrictive, without making it completely ineffective.
Hugh de Kretser, from the Human Rights Law Centre, said free speech is not an absolute right. Laws against defamation, abusive language and false advertising all limit free speech. In 1999, Tony Abbott, today the prime minister of a government that uses “free speech” as a reason for changing the Racial Discrimination Act, won a defamation case against a book publisher.
De Kretser said the Racial Racial Discrimination Act as it stands is working well. The alternative mediation process is much easier and cheaper than using the courts.
De Kretser said the nine Aboriginal people who took Bolt before the Human Rights Commission could also have sued him for defamation. However, defamation cases are very expensive.
In discussion, several audience members drew attention to the role of politicians, both Coalition and Labor, in creating hostility to Aboriginal people, refugees, and Muslim and Middle Eastern people. They noted that the existing Racial Discrimination Act had not prevented this.