Thick hide and cold hearts

Since the Abbott Government started its campaign to repeal protections from racially motivated offensive and humiliating language there has been an outpouring of community anger.

Last week submissions closed on the so-called ‘exposure draft’ of the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. We don’t know how many submissions were received, who wrote them or what they said. The Government is blocking their release.

Ironically the debate that the Government claims is about ‘freedom of speech’ is predicated on the hiding of public debate.

When this process started it was because the Attorney-General George Brandis had bowed to the loudest and nastiest voices in our community and decided to open the flood gates for hate-speech to run without check in the public discourse. The repeal of the key provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, namely 18C and 18D, puts a black mark on this Government.

The Act is not an arcane piece of law. Our words matter. When I was growing up in Cunnamulla and Roma in Queensland’s west in the 1970s some of the terms used towards ethnic and cultural groups were simply unacceptable.

That language is all but gone now because the highest levels of our community sent the message that that language simply wasn’t acceptable anymore and there were legal protections to back it up.

The RDA protects the most vulnerable in our community against those who seek to use a position of power to offend, insult, intimidate or humiliate people on the basis of their race, colour or national origin.

Think of the people in our society who have the loudest voices and power. They often have the most microphones and the most newspaper ink. Now, turn your mind to our first indigenous peoples or small ethnic communities or a young Jewish or Muslim school aged child. Who needs protection under the law from hate speech? Who is the David and who is the Goliath?

A reasonably minded person reaches the obvious answer. The people with the limitless ink and unchecked amps should have no right in our country to promote bigotry or incite racial hatred. For a Government to seek to allow that abuse is simply wrong.

Labor is the political party of the Australian people. We’ve opposed these deeply offensive changes from the day they were announced. We’re standing with ethnic and cultural groups who know the true cost of making these repeals.

It’s become obvious that large sections of the Government backbench and the Abbott Ministry are against the Attorney-General’s out of touch changes to the RDA.

Since becoming Attorney-General George Brandis has made two notable contributions to the nation: the construction of two mammoth taxpayer-funded bookcases and the legislative protection of bigots.

The Attorney-General is a powerful position in our democracy. He is the first law officer of the land.

It should stick in the craw of every Australian that the Attorney-General would suggest that because politicians may be insulted it is therefore reasonable enough to remove 18C. Yet that is what the Attorney-General has done.

It is absurd to suggest that because a white, middle aged, well-educated, elected representative with all the powers of the Attorney-General can be insulted during a political debate, that protections for the vulnerable should be removed.

Is this the new test for Senator Brandis in determining the law? Put another way – if my hide is thick enough then so should yours.

The Attorney-General has made it harder to be caught by the Act and easier to escape its grasp. His changes would allow racially motivated psychological harm; harm to one’s quality of life; and harm to a person’s basic dignity without any legal recourse.

The Abbott plan would also protect shock jocks, commentators, politicians or any other powerful person if they knowingly incite racial hatred, make a group of people feel lesser in value than another, deny the holocaust, or question the validity of someone’s race.

To have the Attorney-General give the green light to vile hate speech drags us back in time and Labor will fight them.

It is time for the Government to cut the Attorney-General loose and dump these changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

About Joseph Ludwig

Joseph Ludwig

Joseph Ludwig is a Senator for Queensland and former minister in the Rudd and Gillard Governments.

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