Less than five per cent of complaints made under the Racial Discrimination Act make it to court, where the majority of them fail. Look through our interactive timeline summarising two decades of court cases to see what was upheld and what was dismissed.

  • Most complaints brought to court are dismissed
  • The majority of complaints have been lodged by Aboriginal people
  • Members of the Jewish community account for the second largest group of complaints
  • A small number of complaints have been lodged by Caucasian people

The Abbott government has proposed removing the words insult, offend and humiliate from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Concerns have been raised over the proposed changes, announced by Attorney-General George Brandis, which would see the stipulations in 18C replaced with provisions outlawing racial vilification and intimidation.

The history of legal cases dealing with s. 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act*

Since the introduction of the Act, the majority of complaints brought to court have been lodged against individuals such as neighbours, colleagues or employers.

Media organisations including newspapers, television stations and the Australian Media and Communications Authority have also had complaints lodged against them in court.

The most well-known case involving the media involved a complaint lodged against columnist Andrew Bolt and the Herald & Weekly Times in 2011, which alleged that Mr Bolt had discriminated against light-skinned Aboriginal people.

The Federal Court of Australia ruled that the columnist and the newspaper had acted unlawfully, finding that some Aboriginal persons who have a fairer skin were reasonably likely to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the published comments.

Politicians, police officers and the entire government of Victoria have also had complaints lodged against them.

Pauline Hanson faced two complaints in court, both of which were dismissed, while a spokesman for her One Nation Party was ordered to pay $1000 in damages after stating that "home invasions are ethnically based, Lebanese or Iranian, not Australian".

*Provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission as of December 12, 2013. Court documents were unavailable for approximately three cases.

Laws "an example for others to follow"

Australian National University Professor Simon Rice said Australia's legislation is different from racial discrimination laws in place overseas, in that it focussed on conduct that caused harm rather than conduct that incited hatred.

"It's probably an example for others to follow, rather than something that we should dispense with," he said.

Professor Rice, the author of Australian Anti-Discrimination Law and former president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, said the current law has provisions for free speech.

"It's been an unremarkable, effective law for close to 20 years," he said.

"I don't see any reason to change it and until the Andrew Bolt case, nobody else saw any need to change it."

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said if adopted, the laws would shift the focus from affected individuals to the impact any racial abuse may have on a third party.

"The actual effect that any abuse or harassment has on a victim would be inconsequential, but for cases of physical intimidation," he said.

"It would be about inciting racial hatred in another person... This is a very high threshold to meet."

Dr Soutphommasane said several prominent cases from the legislation's past would have failed under the proposed changes, including those involving columnist Andrew Bolt and Fredrick Toben, who was charged and eventually jailed for posting "malicious anti-Jewish propaganda" on his website.

He said the changes would also include a broad exemption which would excuse "just about anything that was said in the course of public discussion regardless of whether it vilifies or intimidates someone on the basis of race".

In the past financial year, only three per cent of complaints of racial discrimination made to Human Rights Commission were referred on to the court system.