Groups combine to oppose Racial Discrimination Act change

22 Nov 2013By Marina Freri

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Nine organisations representing Australia's multicultural communities have joined forces to raise their voice against proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

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(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

 

Attorney General George Brandis is proposing to change Section 18C of the federal laws which make it a criminal act to use language that insults, offends or humiliates on the basis of race or ethnicity.

 

He's promised he'll consult with community leaders before introducing amendments, but so far only a few have been contacted.

 

Marina Freri reports.

 

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

 

In a joint statement, nine community organisations have hit back at the proposal to change the Racial Discrimination Act, saying it will expose entire groups to vilification.

 

The group is comprised of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, the Arab Council Australia, the Australian Hellenic Council, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Chinese Australian Forum, the Vietnamese Community in Australia, the Lebanese Muslim Association, the Armenian National Council of Australia, the United Muslim Women Association and All together Now.

 

They're making what they say is an unprecedented appeal to Attorney General George Brandis to consult with them before repealing provisions of the Act.

 

Chinese Australian Forum president Patrick Voon says his organisation is yet to hear from Mr Brandis' office.

 

"Certainly the Chinese Australian Forum hasn't been contacted directly by the Attorney General's office. There may have been one or two groups that have made direct contact, but generally speaking I'd say the consultation process hasn't begun yet."

 

Mr Voon says he hasn't witnessed so many community leaders joining forces since the time when Pauline Hanson was in politics.

 

He says there are concerns the proposed changes will dilute protection against racist attacks.

 

Senator Brandis has indicated he'll seek to change the definition of racial vilification to eliminate at least two of the grounds that were used in 2011 against conservative columnist Andrew Bolt over articles about light-skinned Aboriginal people.

 

But Mr Voon says there's a risk the so-called "Bolt laws" will endanger other people's rights.

 

"I think it's important for communities to make known to the Attorney General that we are concerned about this very drastic announcement all because of 'Bolt law'. I think protection must be available for all minorities against being vilified on the basis of one's race or ethnicity."

 

The proposal to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act first arose during the federal election campaign.

 

Prime Ministerial hopeful Tony Abbott said if elected, he would seek to require the Australian Human Rights Commission to protect, rather than restrict, the right of free speech in Australia.

 

Referring to Mr Bolt's case, Mr Abbott said free speech was the right of people to say what others don't like, not just the right of people to say what others do like.

 

The Australian Hellenic Council's Dr Panayiotis Diamadis agrees freedom of speech is not a matter of personal taste.

 

But he says it should be about all people's freedom.

 

"He's quite correct, it's not about what we like and what we don't like, it's about what is vilifying what is insulting. What is meant to demean or to lower another person or another group of people. Our community particularly online and it used to in the past in print media here in Australia, was regularly targeted. I won't name the publications, but they were publishing material such as Greeks are the origin of all evil, nothing good has ever come out of Greek civilisation. And this was in the days before Section 18-C existed and so the legal cases we took to court failed."

 

The head of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim, says there's a link between hate words and violent acts.

 

He says he's concerned the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act will send the wrong message out.

 

"If you repeal or water down this law it sends a signal from the federal government that racism is permissible, to some extent. And at the end of the day, the lesson of history is that it doesn't just stop with words, it develops into conflicts between different groups. It could lead for example to the importation of hatreds from foreign conflicts into Australia and an introduction to that sort of strife in our community."

 

The community organisations representing multicultural Australia say there should be a public debate on the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

 

Dr Diamadis from the Australian Hellenic Council says they are ready to confront the sides of the Australian society that argue for the opposite cause.

 

"Personally I would love a public forum and not - you know - I write a column, they write a column backwards and forth like that. But we sit down together in a public space and we put our cases to each other. You never know who may give way, I mean personally I think they would."

 

The Attorney General has so far defended his decision to limit the consultation process, saying any bill put to parliament would likely be the subject of a Senate inquiry.

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