Flat White

Fake news meets 18c

1 March 2017

9:08 AM

1 March 2017

9:08 AM

Earlier this month Professor Andrew Jakubowitz of the taxpayer-created Cyber Racism and Community Resilience Research Group attempted to debunk a poll commissioned by the IPA showing a plurality of Australians supported section 18C reform.

As I explained on Flat White, his argument that the IPA was pushing loaded questions fell apart when exposed to minimal scrutiny. Professor Jakubowitz’s CRaCR later commissioned Essential Research to conduct separate polling, culminating in this article by Jakubowitz, Professor Kevin Dunn and Rachel Sharples that appeared The Conversation on 17 February, arguing “an overwhelming majority of Australians support legislation that prevents insults on the basis of race, culture or religion.”

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in its just-released report into 18C even mentioned this poll as a contrast to the IPA poll. But a deeper look at the polling data shows the survey wording to be fundamentally flawed (if not entirely disingenuous) and the conclusions drawn far-fetched. The Essential polling included four questions:

Q Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

People should be free to offend someone on the basis of their race, culture or religion…

People should be free to insult someone on the basis of their race, culture or religion…

People should be free to humiliate someone on the basis of their race, culture or religion…

People should be free to intimidate someone on the basis of their race, culture or religion…

The pro-18C polling has a glaring omission: any reference to the “Racial Discrimination Act” or “Section 18C”. Despite being highly recognisable and a prominent feature of public debate for a number of years now, the omitted words are not actually used. On a question of public policy, which the article at The Conversation explains as being the reason for commissioning the poll in the first place, the failure to refer to the actual law itself makes any conclusions about section 18C highly questionable.

On a deeper level, saying “people should be free” is completely distinct from “it should be against the law”. Take for instance an employee who, as part of their contract of employment, agrees to refrain from making comments that bring their employer into disrepute. The employee may not be “free” to make certain comments, but it is not a government-imposed restriction on speech in the way that section 18C.


Surveying about opinions “race, culture or religion” is particularly bizarre in light of the fact the wording of section 18C refers to “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”. As even Professor Jakubowitz has explained in 2015, section 18C: “the Racial Discrimination Act does not cover religion. Never has, and clearly is very unlikely to in the future.” In an email, Professor Dunn wrote:

[18C] It does not currently cover with religion. Religious discrimination is defined as racism within social science. Attempts re-frame religious discrimination as not racism are nonsensical.

The “social sciences” may think race and religion are interchangeable, but social science isn’t the law.

In light of all this, one would be wary of using the CRaCR survey as an accurate indicator of public opinion about section 18C.

Enter Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who has tweeted several times to the poll story saying “Research indicates the vast majority of people support the RDA’s protections against racial hatred”, which was later tweeted by the Australian Human Rights Commission to its 45,000 followers. Our taxpayer-funded race commentator also referred to the poll when he appeared directly before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to argue that 18C should be retained:

[The poll] found that well over 75 per cent of those respondents in the survey supported making it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people on the basis of race.

And later:

I referred earlier to a recent survey done by academics at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney: namely, Professors Andrew Jakubowitz and Kevin Dunn, which found that there was robust public support for legal protections against racial vilification.

This is all classic goalpost shifting. Change the question to get the response you want, then present it as proof of the correctness of your position. It’s deceptive, and it’s all done at the taxpayer’s expense.

But there is a silver lining. When the pro-18C side of the debate will resort to doing this, there is no clearer sign that public opinion is moving against them.

Morgan Begg is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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