Power should be used to build, not destroy

Shawn Lambert tells us how the debate on repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act shines a light on the worst of conservative politics. 

What is the purpose of political power?   Few can answer this question with any degree of certainty – but as Labor supporters we can.

For over a century the Australian Labor Party has sought and exercised power for a clear and consistent purpose – to build a better future for all Australians.

Our commitment to real progress is the golden thread that runs through our proud history, from the struggle to secure a better deal for working people that gave birth to the ALP in the late 19th Century, to recent innovations such as DisabilityCare which will dramatically increase quality of life for Australians living with a disability.

Without Labor, Australians would be left with no choice but to suffer the conservative side of politics, which exists only to serve the interests of an elite few and stubbornly destroy the progress we have worked so hard together to achieve.

The differences between Labor and the conservatives have recently been thrown into sharp contrast by the debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Section 18C was introduced by the Keating Labor Government in 1994 to outlaw racist hate speech.  As then Attorney-General Michael Lavarch explained to the Parliament, the move to prohibit racial vilification was in the spirit of:

…the fundamental belief that all Australians irrespective of race, colour or national or ethnic origin are entitled to fair treatment.  In this country, we take pride in the community consensus that everyone should be able to advance through life on their own efforts and abilities; that it is wrong to judge anyone on the colour of their skin or the sound of their accent.       

Section 18C was a progressive reform which has fostered a more tolerant and egalitarian Australia.  In this single legislative provision we see Labor’s commitment to fairness and opportunity writ large.

Section 18C has been used to combat the vilest forms of hate speech.  Perhaps most notably to fight infamous holocaust denier Frederick Toben, who sickeningly claimed the suffering of Jews during World War II was a fraud perpetuated for financial gain.

In typical wrecking style, Liberal Attorney-General George Brandis now wants to abolish section 18C and give a green light to hate merchants like Toben.  Not in the pursuit of any admirable policy goal, but simply to appease a sulking ‘shock jock’ and his friends on the hard right.  Mr Brandis may have a lavish, taxpayer funded library of well-thumbed tomes, but his judgement leaves much to be desired.

Labor created section 18C and Labor will fight to retain it.  For me this is not some legalistic argument about balancing one right against another or the unsustainable fiction that freedom of speech is absolute.  Rather, it’s about common decency – I wouldn’t engage in hate speech even if it was lawful, because my vision for Australia is a place where human dignity, equality, mutual respect, kindness and compassion are valued.

Mr Brandis is currently considering community feedback on section 18C is expected to bring a bill to the Parliament in the near future.

The Parliamentary Labor Party has indicated that it will oppose his plan to dilute protections against racist hate speech.  This is not surprising, because Labor has always understood that political power should be used as a tool to build – not destroy.  This is a purpose that continues to drive us today.

About Shawn Lambert

Shawn Lambert

Shawn Lambert is a Melbourne lawyer and activist who was a senior legal adviser to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Special Minister of State Joseph Ludwig.

    CONTRIBUTOR click to Donate

    The Chifley Research Centre relies on contributions from individuals and organisations to fund our operations, events and research. Without your donations, nothing we do would be possible.

  • Cameron Clyne

    Cameron Clyne is the former CEO of National Australia Bank and now chairman of advisory firm Camel Partners and a

    Catherine King

    Catherine King is the Shadow Minister for Health and Member for Ballarat.

    Cilla DeLacy

    Cilla has 20 years’ experience in public policy and corporate strategy across the water, land use planning and environmental management

    David Coats

    David Coats is in Australia as a Visitor at the Chifley Research Centre. He is a research fellow at the

    Gabrielle Kuiper

    Dr Gabrielle Kuiper has a background in science, sustainability and urban planning. She was previously Senior Adviser, Climate Change, Energy

    Erinn Swan

    As Deputy Digital Director I look for new and better ways to tell stories online. When I'm not doing that

    Jim Chalmers

    Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Minister for Finance, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election

    Linda Tirado

    Linda Tirado is a completely average American. She also has good rants about how much it sucks to be poor

    Michael Cooney

    Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon

    Paula Matthewson

    Paula Matthewson is a freelance communications adviser and writer on politics. She was media advisor to John Howard in the

    Terri Butler

    Terri Butler is the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.

    Tim Kennedy

    Tim Kennedy is national secretary of the National Union of Workers, organising for secure jobs and a fair Australia.

    Website design and development by