Speech on Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Federation Chamber, Parliament House

Many members in this place have been feeling a sense of deja vu these past few months. This Prime Minister, who so many Australians thought would lead or hoped would lead a reformist government, has not only failed to renounce the unpopular and flawed policies of the Abbott government but, like a recidivist who cannot help himself, has re-embraced and pursued these failed policies even while knowing that they are bad for the country.

The member for Warringah's thought bubble for a divisive plebiscite on marriage equality has been embraced by Prime Minister Turnbull, picked up like the political football that the Liberals think marriage equality is. Mr Turnbull, beholden as he is to the far right of the Liberal Party, has run with this failed and flawed policy in the full knowledge of the hurt it would have caused and the cost it would have incurred.

 

The Prime Minister, hand in hand with the Minister for the Environment and Energy, has adopted what little climate change policy the Abbott government had bothered to put together. Riddled with the kind of uninspired, unscientific and unambitious proposals that one would expect a climate change sceptic like the member for Warringah to produce, this dog of a policy has hung around the Prime Minister's neck like the millstone that it is.

 

It is a great sadness to me and to millions of Australians that one particular policy of the Abbott government era has been resurrected by the Prime Minister. The Abbott government's 2014 attempt to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, the law that has drawn a line against racial abuse, against Holocaust denial and against harmful hate speech for over 20 years, was one of the biggest failures of the Abbott government, proof of just how out of touch it was with the Australian community. On section 18C, as with so many issues, the Abbott government had grossly misjudged the views of the Australian community, which rejected the repeal with rallies and thousands of emails and phone calls to elected representatives.

 

 

Yet, in 2016, the anti-section 18C crusade has been revived. It shows, in the starkest way, just how weak the leadership of the Prime Minister is that he would cave in to the far Right troglodytes in his party on a matter of such importance to millions of Australians. It is unfortunate that supporters of the repeal of section 18C—the usual motley crew of tabloid shock jocks and far Right culture warriors—use the Racial Discrimination Act, an act that has served Australia well for over two decades, as their vehicle to promote the misguided belief that they, martyred souls in the defence of freedom that they think they are, are somehow the persecuted and victimised in our society.

 

 

The Liberal Party's latest push to weaken protections against race hate speech will take the form of a parliamentary inquiry. I ask the advocates of the repeal: what is it that you think you should be allowed to say? What racially-based insult, offence, vilification or abuse do you think that you should be able to say to someone that you cannot currently say? Section 18C is no more a restriction on freedom of speech than our laws protecting people against defamation. Many members opposite understand this but would rather engage in soaring rhetoric about the rights of bigots than engage in constructive discussion about how to protect the Australian community from race hate speech.

 

 

This issue was laid to rest in 2014. It has been revived, not for reasons of law but because it is a pet project of the Institute of Public Affairs and the hard Right of the Liberal Party to which Malcolm Turnbull is beholden. Millions of Australians will be aghast to learn that, instead of acting on climate change, on funding Australian schools, on meaningful law reform, on doing something about people's jobs or people's businesses, this government's priority is to revisit a proposal that the Australian public resoundingly rejected in 2014.

 

 

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act does not need changing. It is a good law and it has served the Australian people well. There has been a mass of misinformation spread about the way in which this law operates, including misrepresentations of cases decided by courts and misrepresentations about even the number of cases and the number of conciliations that are conducted by the Human Rights Commission or that are taken to court. Labor will oppose any attempts by this government to water down the legal protections against race hate speech.