Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Today by Amy McQuire

Fighting words
Reform of section 18C is back on the agenda

It is telling that those who claim section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) is an assault on freedom of speech have the largest microphones. Despite their claims of victimhood, what they say is heard in the most powerful halls of the country. Why else are we still having a debate around the RDA?

The fact that we are still talking about it shows that their fears are completely unfounded. They have not been silenced, so what else could be motivating them?

It’s been more than two years since Senator George Brandis announced that people had the right to be bigots, and Tony Abbott was forced to back down from abolishing section 18C following outrage from ethnic and minority groups.

Aboriginal groups in particular have been vocal in their condemnation of the proposed changes, and for good reason – it was the legal victory against News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt’s vitriol that first sparked the furore.

In fact, many Aboriginal people feel the RDA is not strong enough. It has been bypassed three times in its history – and every time it was to undermine the rights of Aboriginal people (the Hindmarsh Island affair, watering down of native title, and the Northern Territory intervention).

Nevertheless, today the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has tabled its recommendations on proposed changes to the RDA (and the government is expected to respond in due course). The Sydney Morning Herald reports that one of the key recommendations is the replacement of the words “offend, insult and humiliate” with the word “harass”.

Another proposed option is to change the way the Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC) functions, such as allowing it to knock back so-called vexatious complaints earlier in the process.

Speaking on behalf of the HRC today, Gillian Triggs told Senate Estimates that the complaint against News Corp cartoonist Bill Leak, one of the conservatives’ favourite causes, could have been dropped earlier if Leak had worked in “good faith”. He apparently hadn’t taken up the HRC’s invitation to demonstrate good faith.

Conservatives have already responded to the 18C recommendations: Dennis Shanahan for instance argues somewhat predictably [possible paywall] that the HRC should be reformed.

The general conservative consensus is that the RDA as it stands represents an unwarranted obstacle to free speech and therefore must be changed.

Aboriginal Labor MP Linda Burney is concerned that changes to the RDA would unleash racists, while Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce says it is a distraction and voters “do not invite me into their shed … and then say ‘Barney, sit down in this chair, I want to talk to you about the Racial Discrimination Act’. They are thinking about bigger issues, he says.

Those issues played out against the backdrop of Senate Estimates today, where it was perhaps ironic that South Australian Liberal senator David Fawcett compared asylum seekers to “fleas” during an immigration hearing.

Meanwhile the “debate” around the RDA and the HRC is likely to dominate, while the people who deal with its fallout are pushed to the back of the papers.

Today’s links

  • Former NSW premier Mike Baird will take a senior banking role at NAB, just over a month after quitting politics to spend more time with family.
  • Controversial Nationals MP George Christensen has stepped down as the party’s chief whip, saying he is too “outspoken”.
  • The Turnbull government has ignored advice and appointed the Minerals Council chairwoman to the ABC board, in the midst of political debate about the future of fossil fuels.
  • More on the remote work-for-the-dole Community Development Programme. More than 200,000 fines [possible paywall] have been given to 34,000 of the poorest workers in the country.
  • US president Donald Trump has claimed that the recent Oscars blunder could have been prevented if the awards ceremony hadn’t “focused so hard on politics”.


Amy McQuire

Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman and journalist.


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