The Human Rights Law Centre has released an Information Paper to help individuals and organisations give feedback to the Federal Government on its proposed changes to racial vilification laws. The paper provides an overview of the current law and the proposed changes and also summarises the Human Rights Law Centre’s views on the changes. The Government has invited submissions on the proposed changes by 30 April 2014.
“We encourage interested individuals and organisations to let the Government know their views about these proposed changes. It’s particularly important that the Government hears from communities who bear the brunt of racism,” said HRLC Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser.
“We understand that the Government is refusing to make submissions publicly available as would normally happen with any proper consultation. The consultation process should be transparent. We’ve invited people who are making submissions to send us a copy of their submission so they can be collected and made available on our website for the public to view.” A list of key submissions to the inquiry is available here.
The HRLC strongly criticised the proposed changes to Federal racial vilification laws released on 25 March 2014 by Attorney-General George Brandis.
“These changes would significantly water down important laws that protect against the harm that flows from racial vilification,” said Mr de Kretser.
“Putting the debate around racial offence and insults to one side, our biggest concern is the gaping hole introduced by the public discourse exemption. There’s not much protection left when you see that the laws wouldn’t apply in private or in public discussion on a wide range of matters. Anyone with a blog, megaphone or a twitter account will seemingly be given a licence to racially vilify.”
Under the changes, the words “offend, insult and humiliate” would be deleted from the existing laws. “Vilify” would be inserted but narrowly defined and the existing protection against “intimidation” would also be given a new narrow definition. The drafting of the community standards test opens up the prospect of perpetuating prejudice. The existing free speech exemptions for fair comment, fair reporting and artistic and scientific works would be over-inflated and greatly expanded to include “public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.” Importantly, the requirements for “reasonableness” and “good faith” in the exemption would be removed.
“It’s hard to imagine any racial topic that would be outside the realms of this extraordinarily broad exemption,” said Mr de Kretser.
“The Attorney’s claim that these proposed laws would provide the strongest ever protection against racism under Federal legislation is astonishing and not backed by any basic analysis. The exemption is so broad, and the new protection is so narrow, that the combined changes would almost completely remove the existing Federal racial vilification protections.”
“It’s fine to review these laws after almost 20 years operation to ensure they are working properly and appropriately balance free speech against the harm that flows from racial vilification. The government could have looked at codifying the court decisions that have interpreted these laws sensibly and sought to ensure they only captured serious conduct. At least the changes have been released as an exposure draft as it will allow the substantial problems to be identified and amended, so long as the Government approaches the consultation in good faith.”
A soon to be released academic study suggests the vast majority of Australians support strong and effective protections against racial vilification and a recent poll also showed very strong support for the current laws.
In December last year, over 150 leading community organisations from around Australia, coordinated by the Human Rights Law Centre, wrote to the Attorney‑General urging him to maintain strong and effective racial vilification protections. The organisations represent a wide range of Aboriginal, ethnic, religious, community and legal groups and include leading organisations such as Amnesty International Australia, the Australian Council of Social Services, Oxfam Australia, the Lowitja Institute and the Refugee Council of Australia.
A copy of the open letter is available here: http://www.hrlc.org.au/aboriginal-ethnic-religious-and-community-groups-australia-must-retain-strong-and-effective-protections-against-racial-vilification