Abbott’s pandering betrayal: Why the Racial Discrimination Act is worth defending

Freedom of speech and expression is inevitably a double edged sword. While it is very much the cornerstone of our democratic rights and freedoms, those who spew hateful and misleading vitriol ultimately thrive from the protection it offers. This is precisely why our Federal anti-discrimination laws need to be reviewed with an aim to strengthen, not diminish, legislative protections.

Tony Abbott’s address to the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) last week was unsurprisingly a crowd pleaser, as he attempted to appease his supporters at the IPA, score points with News Limited executives and staunchly defend his comrade Andrew Bolt. It was section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) that Bolt had been found to have contravened for publishing deceptive and offensive material about our already marginalised Indigenous population.

So rather predictably Abbott launched his attack on this very section which, he implied, ought to be deemed as little more than a ”hurt feelings” test. Whether his intention to repeal section 18C of the RDA and revert to common law offences of incitement is an “aspiration” or a commitment is yet to be determined (although, as long as the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, such sweeping amendments may never see the light of day, even under an Abbott-led government).

Section 18C makes it unlawful to do an act that ”is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” on racial or ethnic grounds.” Section 18C is not about “hurt feelings,” or an impediment to discussing “alternatives” in the public sphere, nor is it about limiting freedom of speech. It is about offering legislative protection to the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society – our indigenous population, along with culturally and ethnically diverse communities and religious minority groups.

Moreover, eliminating such legislative protections and relying instead on common law offences of incitement would not provide guaranteed protections, and would ultimately represent an appalling abrogation of responsibility for the most vulnerable.

Perhaps Mr Abbott and his speech writers should pay closer to attention to the exceptions set out in the section immediately following s18C. Section 18D of the RDA specifically exempts conduct which has been done reasonably and in good faith for particular specified purposes, including the making of a fair comment in a newspaper. It is a provision which, broadly speaking, seeks to balance the objectives of s18C with the need to protect justifiable freedoms of expression.

In the case of Bolt, Federal Court Judge Bromberg wasn’t satisfied that the offensive conduct was exempt under this section because of the manner in which the “articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language.”

Interestingly, an edited extract of Abbott’s speech published in The Australian prior to his actual address at the IPA stated that he would “be prepared to maintain a prohibition on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups.” This part was deleted from the address that he delivered later that day. Mr Abbott should clarify his intentions and explain which specific groups he feels are worthy of legislative protection.

The behaviour of the likes of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones helps fuel racist sentiments and ultimately creates the sort of climate in which Cronulla-style riots and individual acts of racially motivated violence can flourish. (Recall that, in 2009, Australian Communications and Media Authority ruled that Jones’ broadcast material in the days before the Cronulla riots was ”likely to encourage violence or brutality.” As a result, Jones and 2GB were found by a court to have vilified Lebanese and Middle Easterners and were ordered to pay $10,000 in damages.)

In a grudging admission that our current anti-discrimination laws are imperfect and in desperate need of an overhaul, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon last year launched public discussion paper to seek community views on consolidating Commonwealth anti-discrimination law as part of Australia’s Human Rights Framework. In its submission, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Council of Australia specifically raised the issue around the notable lack of expressed recognition of “religion” as a protected attribute under the Federal Discrimination laws.

Currently, discrimination on the grounds of religion is unlawful in the ACT, Queensland, Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, with South Australia not providing any protection at all. In NSW, only discrimination on “ethno-religious” as opposed to “religious” grounds is deemed unlawful, and even then the ethno-religious categorization only extends to groups of people who are recognised as both ethnic and religious group. At present this only serves to protect members of the Jewish and Sikh faiths.

Despite statistics documented by a number of research institutions that all point towards an increase in Islamophobia in the West, Muslims and other faith groups which consist of ethnically diverse members are not afforded such protections under Federal laws as they do not fit into the “ethno-religious” category, even though religion is often used as a pretext for what is, in reality, race discrimination.

The only national law protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of their religion applies only in the context of employment and, disappointingly, isn’t actually enforceable in court.

Some are mounting the argument that increasing levels of Islamophobia in Australia has sped up a process of “ethnicization” of the Muslim Australian community and that, perhaps on this basis, Muslims should be seen to fit into an “ethno-religious” category. In any event, as the then-acting Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr William Jonas pointed out in 2003, “it may seem anomalous that anti-Semitism is outlawed” – and rightly so, I’d add – “but Islamophobia is not.”

As Abbott himself has admitted, “Freedom of speech can’t be absolute.” All freedoms and rights are coupled with responsibility. It is a sad state of affairs when our politicians feel the need to score political points at the expense of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, writer and community rights advocate.

Originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics Online 

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A Lack of Insight

Let’s play a word association game. What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘Islamic’? What about the term ‘Sharia’? Does it conjure up images of brutality and send a shiver down your spine? Hardly surprising, considering the persistent and negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media.

Whilst the Anti-Muslim rhetoric has quietened down a little following the post September 11 hysteria, western media still seems mesmerised by Islam and Muslims. Whether it’s a tabloid TV show trying to convince us that Muslims are on an agenda to recruit and convert every Tom, Dick or Harry or an unimaginatively named documentary series trying to go ‘Behind/Beneath’ or to ‘Uncover the Veil’, the media attention is just as relentless as it is disproportionate.

Given that Muslims make up only 2.2% of Australia’s total population, the percentage of media attention is certainly not relative to our size in the general population. Given this climate is it so unreasonable that we, as a Muslim community, refuse to participate in some media interviews, where it is clearly not in our community’s best interests to do so?

In April this year, the producers of the SBS current affairs program Insight contacted various members of the Muslim community to seek their input and participation in an upcoming program on plural relationships and polygamy. This sparked an internal discussion in some circles, where the merits of appearing on Insight were debated.

After a few emails were sent back and forth, and after some debate on social media forums, a number of community leaders, advocates and organisations agreed that they would draft a collective statement toInsight’s producers. The statement would be a unified response, outlining our concerns about the direction Insight was taking from an editorial point of view. This was particularly worrying following on from the sensationalist depiction of Muslims in the infamous ‘Ban the Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs aired in 2010 which apparently enjoyed significantly higher than average ratings.

In our statement, we questioned the newsworthiness of Insight’s focus on polygamy and ultimately sought clarification from the producers on a number of points. We then invited the producers to engage with us, as representatives of various Muslim community organisations, to discuss our concerns and seek our feedback.

The producers responded promptly to our request and as a result, a healthy and protracted discussion took place between Shakira Hussain and myself (representing the signatories to the original statement) andInsight’s producers, including Insight‘s Executive Producer. At a later stage, we also engaged SBS CEO and Managing Director Michael Ebeid.

We raised a number of issues, including the fact that previous Insightprograms, (particularly those which focused on the burqa, niqab and Islamophobia) did not do these topics any real justice. Far from addressing the issues, Muslims were effectively put on trial and forced to address criticisms levelled at them. Such criticisms were often raised by right-wing commentators and played on the fear of Muslims as the ‘other’.

What was also problematic with these shows was the manner in whichInsight’s producers carefully selected Muslim guests. It was clear that the choices were made to produce ‘sexy TV’ and to manufacture on-air confrontation, rather than having an informed discussion on the issues. Whilst we welcomed the idea of showing the diversity of Muslim views, we thought the approach taken by SBS would only engender more tensions towards our community. In the end, the result was not a further understanding of Islamic principles or the promotion of Muslim diversity, but rather, further negative perceptions and alienation of Muslims.

In light of the manner in which Muslims had been portrayed on previous programs, we were of the view that Insight’s recent focus on polygamy didn’t seem to have any real underlying rationale that served the public interest. We couldn’t help but feel that it was an attempt to sensationalise, and ultimately manufacture, a controversy in a bid to increase ratings rather than add anything constructive to the public discourse.

We raised our concerns, and in turn listened to SBS clarify their position but, in the end, we remained unconvinced on the merits of appearing on the show. We then issued a second statement to Insightreiterating our arguments and ultimately highlighting our refusal to participate in such a program. On both occasions, extensive community consultations took place and approval was sought from all twenty-two signatories.

I recall receiving an email from one of our supporters, congratulating us on our collective efforts. What took me by surprise was the observation below:

‘If we step back and appreciate what’s just happened, this is perhaps one of the first times we’ve been able to coordinate and act as one so quickly, and have great impact on an issue of concern and complexity.’

Finally it dawned on me then. ‘We’ had achieved what once seemed unachievable. We’d coordinated a unified media response; we’d engaged far and wide, crossing racial, ethnic, community and sectarian lines. We were unified in theory and in practice—believe me, this was no small feat! In hindsight it was by no means a perfect campaign; I would have liked to involve many others, but given the circumstances, it was a stepping-stone to bigger and better media engagement projects.

Being sought for media interviews purely based on one’s religious background defines the Muslim participant purely on their ‘faith’, devoid of any other capacity and skill set, a tendency that is symptomatic of tabloid media tactics.

Why doesn’t the media quit with its obsession of having Muslim-related content  televised under the guise of understanding and/or demystifying issues which are clearly not newsworthy, but only serve to boost their ratings.

We are trying desperately as a community to influence how we are portrayed in mainstream media. The only way we can make this a successful campaign and have commercial TV networks take our concerns seriously is to show that we stand together as one, that we are not a ‘push over’, and that we’re united in our efforts to ensure that Muslims get a fairer hearing in the media.

Mariam Veiszadeh
mariamveiszadeh.com

 

Originally published in Sultana’s Dream Online Magazine

PETITIONS – Edited extracts

7 May 2012
Statement on behalf of the Signatories from the Islamic Community
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer, SBS Insight

We understand that you have contacted various individuals andcommunity organisations within the Muslim community about participating or assisting with your research for an upcoming Insightprogram regarding polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

A number of the individuals and community organisations that you have contacted have come together to discuss this upcoming Insightprogram, in light of previous Insight programs involving Muslims in Australia.

For all of the reasons detailed below, the signatories of this letter wish to inform you that not only do we wish not to take part in your upcoming program on polygamy and plural marriages/relationships but that we are concerned about the direction that Insight is taking from an editorial point of view and the adverse implications this has for the Muslim community in Australia.

We are struggling to understand why Insight has shifted its attention to the issue of polygamy. In the scheme of things, this topic is not, by any stretch of the imagination, deemed an important topic that requires rigorous discussion and debate worth national public attention at present.

As far as we are concerned, polygamy or plural relationships are hardly practiced within the Muslim community in Australia.

We note that recently Insight focused on the issue of ‘Forced Marriages’ interviewing amongst other members from various communities, a young Muslim woman. Arguably this show may have been justified because at a Federal level the Australian government was looking to introduce legislation on the issue. Insight’s focus on polygamy however, doesn’t appear to have any real underlying rationale which serves the public interest.

We cannot help but feel that this is an attempt by Insight to sensationalise what seems a non-issue in a bid to increase ratings, rather than add anything constructive to the public discourse.

Previous Insight Programs

Whilst we can appreciate that our stance may come as a surprise and perhaps be viewed as a drastic move to Insight’s producers, we remind you that our sentiments and feelings regarding Insight and its depiction of Muslims have been seriously concerning for a while.

… Insight’s programs … have focused on Muslims in Australia and as you may have noticed already, some Muslim community organisations have either shown reluctance to actively participate inInsight’s programs or have treaded with great caution when agreeing to participate.

Previous Insight programs, including those which focused on the burqa and niqab and on Islamophobia have not done either of these topics any real justice. Instead, Insight’s producers have carefully selected guests from the Muslim community that they can pitch against one another in an attempt to show a diversity of opinions. While we welcome representations that acknowledge the diversity of opinion among Muslims, Insight’s producers have manipulated this diversity to create an environment that produces on-air conflict among Muslim guests. The end result is not audience appreciation of Muslim diversity, but rather further misunderstanding, negative perceptions and alienation of Muslim communities in Australia.

Against that background, Insight’s invitation to members of the Muslim community to participate in a program about polygamy is therefore received with much reluctance. The topic which Insighthas chosen to focus on has served to strengthen our view that the producers of Insight are not strictly adhering to the objectives that SBS as a multicultural broadcaster prides itself on – promoting social cohesion and harmony and seeking to broaden cultural understanding.

Impact on the Muslim Community and Social Cohesion

We feel that Insight‘s focus on the Muslim community is disproportionate. Irrespective of Insight‘s stated good intentions, the end result is further alienation of the Muslim community….

Signatories of this letter firmly believe in engaging with media, so to take an action like this highlights the seriousness of our concerns….

In the long run we recognise that it is not feasible for Muslim community organisations to have a blanket boycott of Insight. We wish to develop a more constructive relationship with Insight‘s producers and researchers. However, at present and with the current editorial line adopted by Insight, we have come to the conclusion that it is not constructive for the signatories of this letter to take part in your upcoming program on polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

We are happy to meet with representatives from SBS and discuss the issues outlined in this letter in further detail …

Kind regards,
Statement on behalf of the below Signatories from the Islamic Community
7 May 2012
Signed:

Mariam Veiszadeh, Australian Islamic Voice
Maha Abdo, United Muslim Women’s Association
Samier Dandan, Lebanese Muslim Association
Tasneem Chopra, Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights
Imam Haisam Farache, Minister of Religion
Mehmet Saral, Affinity Intercultural Foundation
Sherene Hassan, Islamic Council of Victoria
Mehmet Ozalp, ISRA Australia
Hameed Attai, Shias in Australia
Shakira Hussein, National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies,University of Melbourne
Hany Amer, Islamic Egyptian Society of NSW
Kuranda Seyit, FAIR
Hanan Dover, Mission of Hope
Sara Saleh, Australian Youth Forum Chair 2012
Mal Mac Rae, Islamophobia Watch Group
Maria Bhatti, Lawyer & Community Advocate
Nora Amath, Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity
Lisa Worthington, Academic UWS
Silma Ihram, Australian Muslim Women’s Association
Khaled Sukkarieh, Islamic Council of NSW
Malikeh Michels, Local Government Councillor
Dr Louay Abdulbaki, Hikmah Institute
Siddiq Buckley, Australian Islamic Mission

***

17 May 2012
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer and Angus Llewellyn, Executive
 
Producer, SBS Insight

Following on from our Statement dated 7 May 2012 and the subsequent meeting between our representatives… we would like to clarify our position with respect to the upcoming Insight program regarding polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.

We would like to begin by extending our deepest gratitude and appreciation to Meggie and Angus for making time to listen to our concerns and engage in an open dialogue. We were very pleased with the outcome of the meeting and felt that it was a mutually beneficial and constructive discussion.

We have discussed the issues raised in the meeting with the rest of the signatories and in response we would like to clarify and reiterate our position.

Participation in Upcoming Program on Polygamy

We wish to reiterate that polygamy is not widely practised amongst Muslims and in our view, not deemed an important topic that requires meticulous discussion and debate worth national public attention at present. The technical aspects of polygamy are complicated and are not able to be properly explained in sound bytes. A poor or inadequate explanation of such principles leads to confusion and ultimately misrepresentation… This in turn will lead to mistrust and increasing levels of Islamophobia being displayed in the Australian community.

Our participation in the upcoming Insight program would inadvertently and incorrectly imply that polygamy is high on our list of priorities and practices when it is not ….

Against that background we would like to exercise our right not to participate and provide an opinion on this topic as we do not feel that it is in the interests of our community to do so.

Whilst we appreciate that Insight is designed to be an ideas forum where debate is encouraged, we sincerely hope that the upcoming  program does not disintegrate into a visual spectacle of conflict and turn into a debacle as was the result when the ‘Ban the Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs were aired as this would lead to further  polarisation and ultimately alienation of the Muslim community.

Participation in Future Insight Programs

… our position with respect to the upcoming show does not imply a blanket boycott against all future Insight programs and was not intended to create an impression that Insight has any ill intentions or has an anti-Islamic agenda. We understand that Insight’s producers are exercising their best endeavours to remain true to the SBS Charter and promote social cohesion and community harmony by providing a platform for Australians of all backgrounds to voice their opinions.

We believe that the best way to engage the Muslim community in the future is to extend an invitation to them to participate in an individual capacity as Australian citizens discussing topics that impact all Australians rather than be asked to participate solely because they are Muslim and being asked to comment on Islamic principles and practices as community leaders.

Whilst we wouldn’t be participating in the upcoming program about polygamy, we would carefully consider participating in future Insightprograms which better served the interests of our community.

Kind regards,
17 May 2012
Signed: [Twenty-two signatories as before]