I wrote this article for a newsletter I publish. I was always going to post it here. Today I received a request to have it re-printed in The Beacon, a publication for the ‘Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church’. Honored. Anyway sorry it’s a bit long.
‘The Right To Be A Bigot’
Last week Senator George Brandis announced in parliament that Australians ‘do have a right to be bigots’. ‘People do have a right to be bigots. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted’. This comment by the senator came in response to questions from the first Indigenous Senator Nova Peris, in the Australian Parliament in relation to the Abbott’s governments proposed changes to Section 18C, of the Racial Discrimination Act.
While Australia grapples with the notion of the free speech of ‘bigots’ and whether minority groups should be protected from ‘hurt feelings’ (a statement made by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott), resulting from the God given democratic rights of the so called bigots; being overlooked, are the possible negative effects that this divisive debate maybe having.
This debate has not only caused anger amongst those in the Australian parliament, but also threatens to undo the progress that has been made towards healing the fractured relationship between the wider Australian community and the first Australian’s and also to Australia’s international image and race relations throughout the country and within the region.
Australia as a nation already suffers an international reputation of being a racist country, probably more so than it deserves. Throughout the last few years, infamous you-tube videos which depict us exercising our right to be bigots at the expensive of the emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical wellbeing of a member of some ethnic minority group in public places, (most commonly our public transportation system) have surfaced. They have been on display for the world to see just how bigoted we are and how we exercise our democratic right to free speech.
The current governments attitude towards the right of bigots vs the perceived weakness and the hurt feelings of the so called ‘victims of racial vilification’, is both insensitive and insulting to those who have had to deal with the crippling effects of racist attacks.
The prime minister appears to be presuming that racial vilification and bigoted behaviour only leads to a few hurt feelings. It would be convenient to dismiss the effects of bigoted behaviour to just hurt feelings but Australia’s own racial history says otherwise. We only have to look at the wounds left by Australia’s racist past to know that racial vilification does more than hurt people’s feelings, it changes people’s lives for the worst, not for the better.
While I find the government’s lack of empathy towards native Australians and the growing ethnic population within its borders a little bewildering, I wonder why the current government is not trying to protect Australia’s economic future in a time of a widening government deficit and predicted forth coming job losses from the manufacturing sector, being predicted by economist.
I am not sure the government has thought about what the Chinese, Indonesians, and how other Asian pacific countries feel about doing business with ‘bigots’.
In 2009, the number of Indian students applying to study at Australian universities fell sharply. Amongst the contributing factors, were the number of racially motivated attacks on Indians in Melbourne.
A lot had to done to get students back to applying for study visas. Although the numbers have now increased, it’s hoped that the parliamentary debate on racial vilification and reapealing section 18C wont have an impact on this.
At risk is also the booming Indian and Chinese tourism market, of which we are competing with Europe and countries such as the US.
The government has already released its Exposure draft with amendments to section 18C and plans on deleting 18D.
It appears that although the reapeal of section 18C was not on the political agenda like the carbon tax, (of which the prime minister believes he has a mandate on), the liberal party has had its heart set on getting rid of it since Andrew Bolt was found guilty and lost the racial vilification court case against nine members of the indigenous community.
Senator Peris asked Senator Brandis, ‘Does the Attorney-General still propose to remove 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act?’. This was in reference to a speech made to the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation in July 2012, where he had said:
‘If we win the next election and if I’m the Attorney-General in an Abbott Government, one of my first priorities will be to remove … the Racial Discrimination Act, the provisions under which Andrew Bolt was dragged before the courts’ … Does the Attorney-General still propose to remove 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act?
In an article published in the Australian, September 2013, ‘Tony Abbott to champion freedom of speech’, written by Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan, the then opposition leader prime minister Tony Abbot, expressed his commitment to ‘work with his attorney-general, George Brandis, to require the commission to champion, instead of restrict, the right of free speech in Australia’.
Mr Abbott said: “Any suggestion you can have free speech as long as it doesn’t hurt people’s feelings is ridiculous. If we are going to be a robust democracy, if we are going to be a strong civil society, if we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we’ve got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company.
In a civil society, people care about other people’s feelings, Mr Abbott. I have yet to hear of a civil society where thinking bigoted thoughts and the verbalisation of those thoughts is perceived to contribute to ‘a robust democracy’.
‘We’ve got to allow people to think things that are unthinkable in polite company and take their chances in open debate’.
Prime Minister Abbott, people are thinking the unthinkable all the time without the states permission. The governments arguments against the need to lift the ban on publicly being able to express bigoted view and the association with free thinking, flies in the face of common sense. Just because people are not allowed to express their racial opinions publically, it doesn’t mean that they can’t think them or have them. If that were the case, racism along with the other ism of sexism would no longer exist and we might all not be having this wonderful debate right now.
We are expected throughout different areas of society to conduct ourselves in a manner that is respectful and responsible towards all members of our community. It’s what is called good manners and it’s something that most of our parents teach us, as children, in order to socialise us into the society we are eventually going to have to live in and be a part of.
Questioned about his commitment to changing section 18C, Mr Abbott said: ‘I think I can say I have helped to encourage George in that direction’.
In parliament Senator Brandis said: ‘It is certainly the intention of the government to remove from the Racial Discrimination Act those provisions that enabled the columnist Andrew Bolt to be taken to the Federal Court merely because he expressed an opinion about a social or political matter.
I will very soon be bringing forward an amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act which will ensure that that can never happen in Australia again—that is, that never again in Australia will we have a situation in which a person may be taken to court for expressing a political opinion.
The problem with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as it is currently worded, is that it goes about the problem of dealing with racial vilification in the wrong way. What it seeks to do is to deal with the problem of racial vilification by political censorship.
There should never be political censorship in this country, Senator Peris. People like Mr Bolt should be free to express any opinion on a social or a cultural or a political question that they wish to express, just as Mr Bolt would respect your right to express your opinions about social or political or cultural issues.
Although Andrew Bolt was taken to court under the anti-discrimination act, the judge ruled in favour of the plaintiffs because: ‘Four articles published by the Herald Sun columnist in the newspaper and his blog were “a head-on assault on a group of highly successful and high-achieving” Aborigines, Ron Merkel QC told the court.
Counsel for the plaintiffs conceded Bolt’s writings did not incite “racial vilification or racial hatred”, rather they “constituted highly personal, highly derogatory and highly offensive attacks” on the nine individuals, (The Australian, Sep, 2011).
Reason why Andrew Bolt was found guilty was because he misrepresented the facts in his article and according to the judge;
‘Andrew Bolt failed the test of reasonableness and good faith because “insufficient care and diligence was taken to minimise the offence, insult, humiliation and intimidation suffered by the people likely to be affected by the conduct and insufficient care and diligence was applied to guard against the offensive conduct reinforcing, encouraging or emboldening racial prejudice.”
Despite the media’s previous uproar regarding it’s right to be able to print and write what it wants, I cannot see how even it, could grossly ‘fail the test of reasonableness and good faith’ as indicated above.
There are fortunately for all of us, only a few people in the country or even perhaps the world who are as controversial as Mr Bolt, who in the above case showed a moral lack of judgement in his portrayal of the plaintiffs and therefore deserves his just punishment.