Editorial: Racism: education, not legislation
The federal government's controversial Racial Hatred Bill will amend the Crimes Act to make it a criminal offence to incite racial hatred "against a person or a group of persons on the ground of race, colour or national or ethnic origin" through a public act. That is "any act by which words, sounds, images or writings are communicated to the public, including the display or distribution of documents or the broadcasting, telecasting, screening or playing of any material; or any conduct that is seen by the public, including gestures or the wearing or display of clothing, signs, flags, emblems or insignia".
Conviction carries a maximum of two years' imprisonment for violence or incitement to violence and one year for incitement of racial hatred.
The bill, as it stands, exempts political debate, publication of "fair comment" or comments in the "public interest", and artistic, scientific and academic work.
Racial harassment will also be targeted under amendments to the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act to give victims of verbal abuse and minor vandalism the right to seek civil remedy rather than criminal sanctions reserved for more serious cases.
While action to combat racism is obviously needed in Australia, this type of legislation does not seriously deal with systemic racism. Racist attitudes cannot be legislated away. Similar legislation in NSW and Britain has had little effect. In NSW none of the three prosecutions that have reached court has been successful. In Britain only 18 cases have been heard in a six-year period. Legislation has failed.
The other side of the legislative coin is that this is a censorship bill. Remember that pornography censorship laws have only driven some pornography underground, while also being used against lesbian bookshops. Such laws have done nothing to combat sexism and violence against women.
The Greens (WA) have criticised the bill's sanctions, arguing that prison sentences do not act as deterrents. Ron Merkel QC, former president of the Victorian and Australian Council for Civil Liberties, holds a similar view. He said: "It is significant that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended against criminal sanctions for racial vilification. Aborigines have strong and emotional views about their decimation by 'white' Australians — they may be expressed in confrontations with police and others. Under this law that can be unlawful conduct."
Western Mining Company will still be able to run racist advertisements by claiming they are "fair comment", in the "public interest", part of "political debate".
The most effective way to tackle racist attitudes and build public opposition to them is public debate. Legislation is not a participatory process; it's not something people can get involved in and have input to. Campaigns that mobilise people against racism not only visibly show opposition but also have an affect on the wider community.
Legislation already exists to protect individuals from threats of violence and actual violence. What is needed is more education, not more legislation, if we're to overcome the sickness of racism.