Features Australia

Clean end of the turd

1 April 2017

9:00 AM

1 April 2017

9:00 AM

I have received an email from the Liberal Party’s Federal office: ‘The Turnbull Coalition Government is making the Racial Discrimination Act stronger, clearer, and fairer.

‘These reforms strike the right balance between strengthening the protections against hate speech based on race, whilst defending Australians’ free speech upon which our democracy depends.’

Turnbull proposes removing the vague words ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’ from section 18C, and putting in their place ‘harass’. He is also proposing changes to the Australia Human Rights Commission’s processes.

These are victories for proponents of free speech, having taken only a little over 20 years to achieve, and plainly better than the existing law, but they do not do what needs to be done – namely, to abolish the act altogether. Turnbull, despite many protests by some of the best minds in the country, evidently still thinks the act is a Good Thing, and only needs a little fine tuning. The changes do not face the fact that the entire act is wrong, because the philosophy behind it is tainted – it presupposed from the beginning that the government has a right to control minds.

As for limiting its application to the term ‘harass’, while this is an improvement, it is redundant. There are laws against harassment already.

Its effect, even in its watered-down form, will be to maintain a bureaucratic apparatus with a vested interest in interfering in our lives and thoughts, and doing a job which is logically a matter for the police, like other offences. Look at the language Turnbull uses to describe the improvements to the act. Stronger? Stronger? After the succession of totally disgraceful cases it would seem obvious to anyone with a shred of decency or political sense that what the Racial Discrimination Act needs is not strengthening but abolishing, root and branch. I suspect that trying to improve it may prove to be like trying to pick up a turd by the clean end.

It is also an admission by the Prime Minister that the act was wrong. Why then did he not intervene to change it earlier? It looks as if the only thing that made him change his mind was the public outcry following the series of scandalous cases. He apparently hopes the electorate will forget his previous opposition to changing the act.

‘Clearer’? The act was passed by the Keating Government. Keating took the culture war seriously, and he showed he understood, and aimed for, the political control of history, for which this act could be a mighty weapon. Would it have been unlawful to mention Islamic State atrocities or portray the Crusades in a favourable light if some Muslims in Australia are ‘offended’ or complained? Or the oppression of women in Aboriginal societies? We have seen what happens when this kind of thing is allowed to run wild. In Britain, under broadly similar legislation, we have seen a political speaker arrested for quoting Winston Churchill’s strictures on Islam, in his 1899 book, The River War. A 14 year-old schoolgirl was arrested after she asked her teacher if she could join English-speaking pupils to do a group assignment.

Codie Stott attended a science class at Harrop Ford High School, in Worsley, part of the Salford education area of Greater Manchester. She had missed the first day of a science project due to a hospital appointment the previous day, and the teacher assigned her to a group of five Asian pupils, only one of whom could speak English. The teacher then said ‘discuss’. The other pupils began speaking in a language she could not understand but which she thought to be Urdu. According to Codie Stott she then said to the teacher: ‘I’m not being funny, but can I change groups because I can’t understand them.’

The teacher’s first response, according to Codie Stott, was to scream threats at her: ‘It’s racist, you’re going to get done by the police!’ Codie, upset and terrified, went outside to calm down. The teacher, as good as her word, did indeed call the police, and few days later, on 26 September 2006, Codie was arrested for racism. She was taken to Swinton Police Station, fingerprinted and photographed, and had her jewellery, and, presumably to prevent suicide, her shoe-laces, removed, and, according to her mother, was placed in a bare cell for three and a half hours. She was questioned on suspicion of committing a Section Five Racial Public Order Offence, and then released without charge. According to the Daily Mail of 12 October 2006, the school was investigating what further action to take, not against the teacher, but against Codie Stott. Headmaster Dr Anthony Edkins was reported as saying: ‘An allegation of a serious nature [sic] was made concerning a racially-motivated remark made by one student towards a group of Asian students new to the school and new to the country. We aim to ensure a caring and tolerant attitude towards pupils of all ethnic backgrounds and will not stand for racism in any form.’

That was England, in the grip of political correctness. But symptoms of a similar madness can be seen in Australia. Why did the Turnbull Government not intervene to support and compensate the QUT students, or support Bill Leak, apart from Turnbull attending his memorial service? It is to be hoped that the amendments to the act will curb its worst excesses. The danger is that some proponents of free speech will now consider the battle won and become complacent.

As for making the act ‘fairer’, how can it be made fairer without being abolished? And what is ‘fairer’, anyway? Will it be drafted so people like the QUT students and Bill Leak will be spared the strain and expense of being dragged through the courts for things they have said or drawn that are not crimes at all?

The act is unnecessary. There are other laws, such as libel (admittedly itself a defective law) and the public order laws to protect minorities. Professor Ramash Thakar of the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, stated: ‘The Australian has the resources to mount a robust challenge to the AHRC apparatchiks. Most people don’t. Therein lies the rub. The process is heavily weighted against the defendant. Once a complaint is lodged, the AHRC can use state power and resources to pursue action against them.’

The AHRC both solicits complaints and adjudicates on them, a shocking travesty of principles of natural justice, fitting more naturally the jurisprudence holding sway in Afghanistan or Somalia. How can this be made ‘fairer’? Is it an admission that the act as it stands is ‘unfair’, and if so, will compensation be paid to its victims?

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