The view from Billinudgel

Not a priority
The Racial Discrimination Act is a tool to encourage civility, not a draconian repression of free speech

The baying pack of Coalition backbenchers demanding the abolition, or at least the dilution, of the Racial Discrimination Act may be sincere crusaders for free speech. On the other hand they may be motivated by a desire to attack small-l liberals, of whom one is (or at least was) their own leader, Malcolm Turnbull. And some are just nasty.

But in all cases they are guilty of that most heinous of political crimes: they are out of touch with the electorate. Despite the fanatical efforts of the ideological zealots of the Australian, there is not even a squall of public protest about the horrors of the repression of section 18c.

The masses are not gathering in the streets proclaiming the right to insult and offend racial minorities. There are no demonstrations insisting that Australians should insist they can call Indigenous citizens apes, or throw bananas at them.

The matter has seldom been controversial at all, and when it is, it has generally been settled amicably, with expressions of regret rather than outrage. Cory Bernardi and Andrew Bolt may seethe, but that is in their nature. Turnbull, more sanguine and sensible, says it is simply not a priority and will let it rest.

The RDA is seldom used as a coercive tool, but this does not mean that it is not effective. The attorney-general, George Brandis, may assert that people have a right to be bigots. Well, sure: you can’t legislate for decency, but you can encourage it, which is the point of section 18c.

Insult and offence are often, even usually, caused by carelessness rather than malice, but that makes them are no less hurtful to their victims. By technically outlawing them we send a signal that people are expected to be civil; that when they overstep the mark, society does not condone it.

No one can prevent anyone from being unpleasant in private: they can rant about blacks, Asians, Arabs, Jews or any other targets their prejudices latch onto, but if they do it in public, the victims have the right to complain and the perpetrators can be held to account.

The government cannot compel empathy, but it can and should encourage it, and this is essentially the point of the Racial Discrimination Act. Linda Burney made the point in her maiden speech in parliament last week: with very few exceptions, those most keen to repeal the provisions are those who have never had to live through the slurs, denigration and persecution that is the regular oppression of those who are not born among the white majority.

Free speech is a fine ideal and needs to be protected; but any civilized nation knows that it has limits. Lies, libel and slander are the most obvious, and incitement to violence and crime, particularly terrorism, are increasingly restricted. 

To give free rein to insult and offence may appear no more than a blow to political correctness (also known as politeness) but it is, as conservatives are fond of saying, the thin edge of the wedge.

Bernardi has said that same-sex marriage to may lead to bestiality. More realistically, he might consider that abolishing 18c would almost certainly encourage division and racism, and can easily to lead on to the kind of mob violence that Australia, mercifully, usually escapes. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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