Whether it’s in their treatment of asylum seekers, their policy of secrecy or their intention to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, it seems that the Abbott government is intent on destroying Australia’s moral compass.
Attorney-General, George Brandis, defending the Government’s intention to repeal s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, told the Senate Monday that “people have the right to be bigots”. It appears that in George Brandis’s world view, bigots are the persecuted minority whose rights need to be staunchly defended.
Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 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.” It is followed by s18D (which is conveniently ignored by many conservative commentators) which seeks to balance the objectives of s18C with the need to protect justifiable freedoms of speech and expression.
The provisions seek to offer legislative protection to the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society – our indigenous population, culturally and ethnically diverse communities and religious minority groups.
Whilst in the past politicians, particularly in the lead up to an election, have sought to indirectly play on the public’s fears, Senator Brandis’s comments have taken it to a whole new level. This is the first time that I can recall, where a Senior Minister has directly endorsed (and thereby encouraged) having bigoted views. There’s no reading between the lines here – Brandis has specifically said that “people have the right to be bigots, you know.” This is somewhat unprecedented.
What’s concerning is that these remarks are not coming from some rogue back bencher (such as Senator Cory Bernardi), but rather from our nation’s top law maker.
As Western nations, we pride ourselves on emerging out of the darkness of our tainted histories, it seems however with its recent track record, the Abbott Government is hell bent on pulling us back into the dark era.
Whilst Abbott and Brandis keep reiterating that people have a right to make comments that upset or offend people, it is important to consider the position of the individual who makes the comments in question. Central to the debate is the fact that there is almost always a power imbalance between the person(s) who make the offending remarks and those whom the remarks are aimed at. This is clear when you take a look at the groups of people who have sought protection under s18C. They mostly come from marginalised, minority communities and they do not, under any stretch of the imagination, stand on an equal footing with their perpetrators.
The simple, perhaps controversial truth is this – white middle aged men in powerful positions are not the ones who are at the top of the list of people who regularly face discrimination. So why is it then that the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act seek to protect this category of people?
History has shown us that where racial vilification is publicly sanctioned by those in high office, mere words can have a powerful ability to incite hatred and violence.
As with any democratic right, freedom of speech should be tempered with responsibility and it is counter productive if those who continously spew hateful and misleading vitriol are the very individuals who continue to thrive from the protection that freedom of speech offers.
We should be very afraid when our top law maker seems more passionate about protecting the rights of bigots than the rights of the most marginalised members of our society.
Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, community advocate and Welcome to Australia ambassador.
Originally published: 25 March 2014, Sydney Morning Herald