JOIN LABOR'S CULTURE OF IDEAS

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.

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