Australians in the news and on social media have been talking about free speech for the last few days after Attorney General George Brandis publicly defended people’s rights to be bigots. Brandis has proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act from 1975 regarding the ability of people to speak their views on racial minorities that would basically make hate speech a legal right. Australians are overwhelmingly against these changes, but the debate in politics over the issue highlights one terrible fact: Australia has a free speech problem.
The problem is not that people do not have free speech. Australians are as free as Americans or anyone else in Western countries with democratically protected free speech to express their views, even bigoted views, about minorities without fear of censorship. As laws go, the Racial Discrimination Act is pretty broad and allows a variety of forms of expression in both speech, writing, and art so long as they are genuinely held beliefs.
No one can figure out why Brandis and the acting government want to change this hugely popular act. The Coalition government and now Prime Minister Tony Abbott made the change one of their campaign promises when they ran in 2013, but they have been short on giving concrete reasons. One of the main questions opponents have is simply, “Why?”
One reason that has been cited by the Coalition is the outcome of the 2011 discrimination case against journalist Andrew Bolt. Bolt, a popular conservative journalist and political commentator, wrote articles regarding aboriginal people, claiming that there were some who claimed a heritage they did not actually belong to. His reason for assuming they weren’t actually indigenous was that their skin was too fair. He alleged in these articles that such people were benefiting from a false identity by participating in government programs for indigenous Australians and named certain indigenous individuals as evidence for his claims.
The case went to court and nine of the 18 individuals Bolt had named testified against him. None of them were found to have claimed a false identity as indigenous Australians regardless of their skin tone and had been raised with an indigenous identity their entire lives. Bolt was summarily found guilty of violating the discrimination act because it was determined that these individuals and other members of the indigenous community had been insulted, humiliated, or intimidated by Bolt’s writing.
These three conditions – insult, humiliation, and intimidation – are the key parts of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which is the part that Brandis and the Coalition government want to change. When Bolt was found guilty, he made the comment to the press that the ruling was bad for free speech in Australia, as if the ruling had somehow been erroneous or draconian. However, the ruling was completely in accord with Section 18C which has been Australian law for more than 20 years. Bolt seems to have concluded that anti-discrimination laws in Australia are actually a form of political censorship.
Despite the attempt by the Coalition to tell the public that Australia has a problem with political censorship of individuals’ free speech, a majority of Australians do not support any change to Section 18C or any other part of the Racial Discrimination Act. The law does provide plenty of exceptions for free speech, including genuinely held belief expressed publicly, so long as it does not insult, humiliate, or intimidate people of a minority group. So when Brandis tells Australians that people have a right to be bigots, he is completely correct and most Australians agree with that statement. They do not, however, agree with the implication that such a right is being infringed upon by keeping such views limited to courteous discourse.
The University of Western Sydney actually conducted a survey to see just how many people support the Racial Discrimination Act. They did so by asking participants whether there should be laws preventing people from insulting, offending, or intimidation people based on their race, which is what Section 18C deals with. Overwhelmingly, respondents agreed that it should be illegal.
Ever since Brandis announced changes to the act, people have been voicing their disapproval. This has become so prevalent that Brandis has slowed down the process of change by providing an opportunity to engage the community on the proposed changes. He brought a draft of proposed changes to the floor in order for people to examine it and provide their opinions.
However, he also reiterated the popular Coalition line that the government has no place in legislating just so that no one’s feelings are hurt. This would mean removing the references to insult or humiliating in Section 18C, though he would retain intimidation, which he sees as something more than just hurting someone’s feelings. This has prompted opponents to start a media campaign to get people to express their opposition, including a photo that has been shared over 15,000 times on Facebook that says it is not okay to offend, insult or humiliate anyone.
The situation has created an interesting problem for Australians who are fierce protectors both of free speech and of their minorities. Indigenous Australians have a proud history of involvement in politics and community life, as well as a terrible background of being mistreated not just in speech, but in physical action. This particular group has already been affected by bigotry and has a vested interest in seeing those laws which protect it being preserved. Other minority groups, however, such as LGBT people, religious minorities, and anyone else who is likely to experience discrimination are also in solidarity with racial minorities. Australians, who believe passionately that their country is and should remain the land of the “fair go,” are not simply going to let this pass quietly.
Minorities and others have identified the fact that Australia does have a free speech problem. It is not that speech is being censored or that people are allowed to abuse others with impunity. The problem is that there are some who want to make free speech something that hurts other people, something that cannot be fought back against when it causes harm. They know that this will essentially make minorities less free than they are now and Australians, that quintessentially fair minded people, will not let that happen.
Opinion By Lydia Webb