• Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, One Nation's Pauline Hanson and columnist Andrew Bolt are in favour of amending Section 18C. (AAP/Sam Mooy/Mick Tsikas/Julian Smith)Source: AAP/Sam Mooy/Mick Tsikas/Julian Smith
With renewed calls for the repeal or amendment of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, are we paving the way for a more oppressive Australia?
Sunil Badami

17 Nov 2016 - 10:07 AM  UPDATED 17 Nov 2016 - 10:07 AM

If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything.

It’s advice we’ve all been given by our parents, and it’s the foundation of a civil society, a tenet underpinned by the so-called Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated yourself.

And it goes to the heart of the debate surrounding renewed calls for the repeal or amendment of Section 18C, which deems it unlawful if a person commits an act which is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

For leading proponents, such as Senators David Leyonhjelm and Malcolm Roberts, removing “insult” or “offend” — or better yet, repealing 18C — is about the right to free speech, with both saying ‘offence is always taken, not given. If you want to take offence, that’s your choice. You have the choice of choosing another feeling.’

It’s akin to something parents have told their children for generations: ‘sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you.’

Which is fine, if you’ve never been physically attacked or abused because of your race. Then, the sticks and stones do break your bones, and the names and discrimination can hurt deeply.

Looking at the 21 senators who signed Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s petition to repeal 18C, or at the IPA’s staff list, you’re struck by how few, if any, non-white faces there are.

What unites all of these repealers – apart from them never having actually experienced racial abuse or vilification – is how at odds their actual behaviour is to their stated positions on free speech.

Their attitude, that “our” right to offend and exercise “our” right to free speech without any consequences trumps “their” right to be offended or exercise theirs.

Take George Christensen accusing fellow Coalition MP Russell Broadbent of being a “hand-wringing elitist” trying to shut down “free speech” simply for speaking out against Christensen’s denigrations of minorities.

And while David Leyonhjelm defended Wicked Camper’s sexist and often obscene slogans — which many in the community would like to see banned, especially when they’re parked near schools and people’s homes — so much so he told women’s rights activists to “shut the f-ck up” — he “chose” to be deeply offended when The Chaser turned the tables on him and turned up outside his house with a similarly painted van.

Many of these “free speech champions” are enthusiastic defamation litigants, suing others for offence and hurt. In 1999, Abbott successfully received additional damages after suing Bob Ellis and his publisher for defamation, for “hurt and anger caused.” Cory Bernardi has sued a number of media outlets for defamation; Pauline Hanson has received a number of six figure defamation settlements, erstwhile One Nation senator Rod Culleton recently sued 18 people for $250,000, and Leyonhjelm instituted proceedings against a journalist reporting on alleged pre-election Senate deals.

And all of them have said egregiously wrong and often utterly bigoted things about Jews, gays, women, Muslims and other minorities.

"Real” Australia is modern, interracial, multicultural, full of mixed marriages and multiethnic children – just like mine – where it isn’t just white vs. the rest, but all of us tied together by community and family and friendship and decency.

Like many demagogues throughout  history, these free speech warriors proclaim to speak for ‘ordinary’ people against ‘out of touch elites’.

But who are these “forgotten people”? The 77 that directly voted for Roberts? The less than ten per cent of voters who voted for the National Party or the less than half a percent who elected Leyonhjelm?

Even the 50, 000 people Bernardi says have joined his breakaway Australian Conservatives online pale in comparison to progressive action group GetUp!’s over 632, 000 members.

Most Australians don’t support any changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, and the Act survived over 38 years –including Section 18’s legislation two decades ago — despite the Human Rights Commission processing over 22,000 complaints a year, with 80% resolved by mediation.

Many may say that the rise of Hansonism and concerns over 18C are coming from racist bogans in the outer suburbs, most affected, they say, by the globalisation and free trade agreements . Or, those impacted by service cuts brought in by many conservative governments which punish the poorest to reward the richest, resulting in such anxiety and insecurity about how the costs of living have risen exponentially, as our standard of living has fallen or stagnated.

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But in those outer suburbs in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – much like where I grew up and my mum still lives –  where there are the most migrants, you’ll see how the reality belies the idea of an antediluvian “real” Australia.

“Real” Australia is modern, interracial, multicultural, full of mixed marriages and multiethnic children – just like mine – where it isn’t just white vs. the rest, but all of us tied together by community and family and friendship and decency. And all of us worried about more than political games and semantics.

As Bennelong MP John Alexander, the Liberal member for one of Australia’s most ethnically diverse electorates (John Howard’s former seat of Bennelong), has pointed out – 18C reform is not even in ‘the top 100 issues’ facing the Government and the nation.

But instead of addressing the real issues that concern us most, or taking on the “elites” who continue to evade tax and control the political agenda through donations, lobbyists and the media – for repealers, it’s easier to target scapegoats without actually addressing the root causes of our fear and discontent.

As a result of their inflammatory rhetoric, many Australians — like me, my family and many of my non-white friends — are genuinely worried about what protections will remain if 18C is amended or abolished.

But it also begs other questions, like: how does repealing 18C help the one in five unemployed young people in Bernardi’s state of South Australia (according to findings by SA's Brotherhood of Saint Laurence) get a job?

Australians should be rightly proud, not anxious, about our rich, diverse, and generally tolerant multicultural society.

How does repealing 18C help you buy a house without rich parents like Turnbull? How does repealing 18C help protect my children, or my elderly mum from being called a "black c-nt" by someone exercising their “right” to free speech? And how does repealing 18C help make Australia a better, fairer, kinder, more cooperative and compassionate country?

But instead of answering these questions, or showing the steadily increasing number of us who’ve been born overseas or have parents born overseas how the changes will also protect us, repealers have framed it as an “us and them” situation. A scenario where “ordinary” (bigoted) Australians’ rights to offend and attack “particular groups” (the rest of us) are more important than our fears, dismissing our right to feel safe as irrelevant and ensuring a compromise can never be made.

Australians should be rightly proud, not anxious, about our rich, diverse, and generally tolerant multicultural society.

It’s not only reflected in the fact that a majority of us don’t want the RDA to be changed, or in Malcolm Turnbull’s high approval ratings when many in the electorate, increasingly dissatisfied with Abbott’s right wing agenda, thought he would bring a more reasoned, consensual, moderate, modern approach to many issues like marriage equality, climate change and public discourse.

It’s reflected in us, and our increasingly mixed families and diverse workplaces and neighbourhoods. It’s reflected in our faces, where, as Turnbull once rightly pointed out: "None of us can look in the mirror and say “all Australians look like me.” Australians look like every race, like every culture, like every ethnic group in the world. We’ve been able to be so successful because of a fundamental Australian value of mutual respect.”

There are far greater problems now facing us as Australians than our differences, and those of us like Broadbent who care about preserving those “real” Aussie values need to speak up and say something. 

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