Right-wing politicians are campaigning to repeal Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) and make it legal to humiliate, insult, offend and intimidate people on the basis of their skin colour, ethnicity, nationality or race. They claim to defend free speech, but really they want to strengthen racism and widen divisions in order to rule more easily.
Infamous right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt was found guilty under Section 18c of the RDA in September 2011. He wrote two factually incorrect articles for the Herald Sun newspaper deliberately offending a number of prominent Aboriginal people on the basis of their skin colour. Bolt has a history of denying Aboriginal people’s oppression and dispossession including referring to the stolen generations as a “myth”. Since Bolt’s trial, right-wing forces led by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) think tank have waged a campaign to repeal 18c.
Tony Abbott’s government promised to repeal 18c before it came to office.
But in August 2014 Abbott dropped the plan because of a public backlash that worsened his already precarious position. Malcolm Turnbull is reluctant to pursue the issue for fear of the same. But reactionary Senator Cory Bernardi began campaigning again to repeal 18c immediately after this year’s federal election. He organised a private member’s bill which is supported by a number of Coalition MPs and senators. Pauline Hanson’s four senators, alongside David Leyonhjelm, former senator Bob Day (both members of the IPA) and Derryn Hinch, all gave support.
These right-wing figures claim that free speech is critically threatened by 18c. But it is not enough to simply offend someone to be prosecuted under it. Broad exemptions exist in section 18d of the RDA. They allow statements made in good faith in art, scientific debate and comment on issues of public interest. Politicians are immune to action against their speeches in parliament. Moreover, many who oppose 18c have some of the loudest voices for expressing themselves in the country. Bolt, for example, describes himself as Australia’s most read columnist.
In practice there are very few prosecutions under 18c. The Human Rights Commission says fewer than 3% of 18c complaints made it to court in 2012-13. The number one group of people who lodged complaints were Aboriginal people, followed by Jewish people – who in many cases were tackling Holocaust denial.
Many more genuine threats to free speech exist in Australia. Mainly they are the product of the major parties. One of the most serious is the Australian Border Force Act which is supported by both the Liberals and Labor. Under this act “entrusted people” like doctors, nurses or psychologists can be jailed for two years if they publicly reveal information, including abuse of refugee children, from inside detention centres. While some healthcare professionals have now been removed from the secrecy provisions of the Border Force Act, many other workers in the detention industry will still face recrimination for speaking out. These laws are in place to support the racist myth-making about refugees by politicians.
What this gang of racists really want is to score an ideological win to legitimise racism. Racism is a powerful political weapon for establishment politicians to distract and confuse. They push the idea that living standards are going backward because specific groups are sucking up unfair amounts of scarce resources. But it’s not Aboriginal people, Muslim people or refugees sucking up the resources. It’s the super-rich.
People have a right not to be psychologically abused. Racist speech harms people and it encourages and legitimises racist discrimination, oppression, exploitation and violence. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody recognised this. It was part of the argument for introducing 18c in 1995.
Socialists oppose repealing 18c just like we oppose repealing Holocaust denial laws in Austria and Germany. But we don’t stop there. No one should have any illusions that the RDA is the final safeguard against racism. Racist lies are spouted daily by big business politicians and their supporters regardless of the RDA.
Tackling racism requires organising against its spruikers, and building solidarity in struggle between working people of all colours, nationalities, religions and ethnic origins. To end racism, we have to replace the social system that breeds it – capitalism. As Malcolm X said “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. The alternative to divisive capitalism is democratic socialism.
By Kirk Leonard