Last Friday I was surprised to receive in my email inbox a joint media release stating:
The NSW and Victorian Governments today announced they lodged formal submissions opposing changes to the protections against racial vilification contained in the Federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
This is sometimes known as the repeal of section 18C. I was quite surprised by this media release, considering that one of the fundamental tenets of the Liberal Party is the right to free speech—in fact, in the list of four items which it counts as essential for parliamentary democracy, free speech is there. I think there is something even worse at hand, and that is the assumption that removing the ability of a person or a group of people to take legal action against speech that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates on the basis of race would somehow licence racist speech and unleash the streak of prejudice thought to perpetually run through the Australian character. It is a very shallow, very unfair and very small-minded belief that that is the true nature of Australia for which legislation is required.
The assumption is that the law, as it currently stands, is the only thing restraining racial hatred and keeping public discourse civil in Australia, as if there is a racist or a bigot hiding behind the aspidistra waiting to burst out with a metaphorical cutlass of discrimination the mere moment that section 18C is removed. What defenders of section 18C ignore is that social sanctions already exist to enforce culturally accepted standards of behaviour. A truly civil society has ways of self-regulating and condemning racist speech without resorting to the lawyers and the apparatchiks of the Human Rights Commission. A good example of this can be seen in that a self-regulated civil society provided the necessary opprobrium for Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. President Obama resisted the pressure from the media to bring the authority of the Government to bear and do something about Sterling. Instead, President Obama said:
- When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk.
This has a lot to do with the First Amendment in the United States, but the Sterling controversy has also shown that free speech does not license racist speech at all and that modern societies can and do impose social sanctions for racism. If an Australian leader in politics, business or sport expressed the same kind of racist sentiments as Sterling, a similar fate of exile and ostracism would await them. For decades Australians of diverse background have spoken about how hurtful it is to be singled out based on their creed or colour, and have said that in the bad old days racial insults were common.
Over time this lesson has deeply penetrated Australian culture. Proof of the zero-tolerance approach to racism has taken hold in virtually every Australian school. Even the dimmest pupil knows that it is offensive, and schools are very prompt in promoting the antiracism message. One simply has to look to Australia, where Eddie McGuire, a multimedia personality, multimillionaire and president of the Collingwood Football Club, made an off-colour and racially-tinted remark about Australian of the Year Adam Goodes. The powerful and influential McGuire was castigated by virtually every media outlet in the land and forced to make a grovelling apology explaining how terrible racism is and how he was not a racist.
What we have in section 18C and the construct of the Human Rights Commission is the creation of an Orwellian doublespeak in the modern world. The Human Rights Commission has in its name the issue of rights and yet in practice this vast bureaucratic outfit, funded by government to the tune of $25 million a year, does far more to thwart freedom than it does to promote it. The debate about section 18C is a key ideological clash between whether the State should have the authority to tell individuals what they can think and say and whether it should be left to individuals and society. Alan Borovey, founder of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, was just as scathing. He said:
- You are running a terrible risk that someone’s thin skin could be the limit of someone else’s free speech.
Professor John Furedy, a Holocaust survivor said:
- There is what I call a velvet totalitarianism creeping in. I call it that because the punishments are less severe but people still try to censor themselves and each other. … There can be no contest of ideas if we go too far down this path. … The only protection against stupid speech is better speech.
Professor Alan Dershowitz said:
- Once a government gets into the business of banning one type of bigoted speech, the circle of censorship inevitably expands.
Finally I go to Israel—one country whose very existence faces an existential threat every day. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel said:
- Freedom of expression does not only mean the expression of views that are widely accepted by the public reflect the government’s policies, but also minority views and views that are considered irritating, extreme and unacceptable.
I entirely agree with these sentiments and I reject the media release put out by the Minister for Citizenship who has responsibility for multicultural affairs.