Proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act unveiled today by the Australian Government are unnecessary and risk encouraging racist hate speech in the community.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, said the Government has its priorities wrong.
“Attempting to water-down Australia’s anti hate speech laws sends a troubling message to the community. It says this Government thinks the ability to say racially offensive, insulting and humiliating things is more of a priority than the pressing need to combat racism at every turn,” said Mr de Kretser.
The Government’s decision to introduce legislation into Parliament was announced on Harmony Day – a day of celebration of cultural diversity which coincides with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The proposals would see ‘offend’, ‘insult’ and ‘humiliate’ removed from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and replaced with ‘harass’.
Instead of combatting the spread of racism, Mr de Kretser said the Government was trying to fix a problem that does not exist.
“We just had a parliamentary inquiry into this issue. The inquiry’s report did not say the laws should be changed - it found the laws were consistent with fundamental rights and freedoms,” said Mr de Kretser.
The report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, was tabled in Parliament last month – details can be found here.
Mr de Kretser said by signing up to the UN’s treaty on eliminating racial discrimination, Australia had committed to pursue positive steps to stop racial discrimination.
“The current laws strike a healthy balance between fundamental rights to free speech and freedom from racism. It’s hard to say how the courts would interpret these changes, but there’s little to be gained by essentially telling bigots that the Government thinks they should be able to say more racist things,” said Mr de Kretser.
The Government’s bill would also change in the objective standard against which harass and intimidate are judged – from a 'reasonable member of the relevant group' to 'the reasonable member of the Australian community'.
“It’s critical to consider how racism impacts on the people subjected to it. We can’t expect a middle class white man, for example, to understand how an Aboriginal person experiences racism. The existing objective standard should be retained,” said Mr de Kretser.
The Government has also put forward a number of amendments to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s complaints process, which will affect people making complaints about other types of discrimination, including sex, age and disability discrimination.
“The Commission plays a critical role in making sure vulnerable people have somewhere to turn when they experience discrimination. It provides a low-cost, efficient and informal way to resolve complaints. Changes that make the process more efficient are welcome, but any proposals that would create a barrier to accessing justice should be opposed,” said Mr de Kretser.
For more information or comments, please contact the HRLC's Director of Communications & Campaigns, Tom Clarke on 0422 545 763.