A fundamental weakening of the Racial Discrimination Act means the bar for racial abuse has been set higher - but the penalties are no tougher, writes Penny Wright.
By
Penny Wright

25 Mar 2014 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2014 - 4:11 PM

The Abbott Government has opened the floodgates for racism and bigotry. Under the proposed amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act released by the government today anyone can racially insult or humiliate someone as much as they like.

With extraordinarily broad exemptions, it will also be virtually impossible to prosecute anyone who does meet the Government’s extremely high bar for racial vilification and intimidation.

Let’s be clear – this is the Andrew Bolt Protection Bill – there’s no doubt about it.  

It is a fundamental weakening of the laws which prevent racism in our society.

Firstly, the Government seeks to make it unlawful to vilify or intimidate someone on the basis of their race – but the bar has been raised so high, intimidation only applies if you actually fear for your physical safety.

Attorney-General George Brandis has shown no understanding that the emotional and psychological damage of everyday racism is every bit as harmful as physical threats.

He says the government has no role in protecting people from ‘hurt feelings’.  Racism is not a matter of ‘hurt feelings’. Racist abuse attacks the core of a person’s sense of self and wellbeing. There is always a role for government in preventing racism because racial slurs don’t just cause ‘hurt feelings’ – they can have huge mental health consequences, even to the point of suicide.

And then even if someone does make a physical threat or incite hatred – it will be almost impossible to bring them to justice. The amendments released by Minister Brandis are similar to state laws which have failed to deliver one successful prosecution.

The laws also make the views of the person who was vilified or offended irrelevant in any court case.

Worse still, although the bar for racial abuse has been raised even higher, the penalties are no tougher.

These amendments do not make racial vilification or intimidation a criminal offence in any way – the most serious penalty a court could impose would be an apology or civil damages.

A slap on the wrist. Even if you incite racial hatred or are so abusive as to make someone scared for their safety.

The chance of getting that slap on the wrist is very remote. The government has included such broad exceptions that it will be impossible to distinguish between legitimate debate and hate speech.

Section 4 of the exposure draft gives a blanket exemption to any communication ‘in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter’. There’s no requirement for reasonableness or good faith.

There’s no clearer indication this government is opening the floodgates for any Australian to be as racist as they like.

If you have racist views, find a newspaper, call a talkback radio station, write a blog and this government will give you the thumbs up.

Without any definition of ‘public’, these exemptions could even include a water-cooler debate at a workplace.

Attorney-General George Brandis says we can rely on ‘decency’ to stop racism.

Yet every part of human history demonstrates decency doesn’t always win the day. That’s why we have Section 18c in the first place. There will always be vocal people with racist views. What is not inevitable is that they will be entitled to racially abuse other people.

The Australian Greens have been proud to stand with multicultural groups to preserve our laws against hate speech. Section 18C has functioned extremely effectively in the years since its introduction. There were few complaints until one Mr Andrew Bolt famously entered the picture.

Although the Attorney-General might be being disingenuous about what his amendments will achieve – he’s at least being transparent in his reason for overhauling well-respected legal provisions against racism.

Minister Brandis has been perfectly clear it’s his opinion Mr Bolt should never have been prosecuted and he wants to make sure he won’t be again.

The Coalition Government have again showed they’re prepared to throw away the rights of the many, to deliver for their privileged mates.

Senator Penny Wright is a member of the Australian Greens and the spokesperson for legal affairs.