Page 1193 - Week 04 - Wednesday, 29 March 2017

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Mr Whitlam stated that he saw the new law as creating a climate of maturity, of goodwill, of cooperation and understanding at all levels of society. This is the sentiment in which the act exists: that it promotes cooperation and understanding at all levels of society.

But, sadly, racism is all too common in modern Australia. It is all too common in our streets, on our public transport and in our political discourse. How can anyone with a straight face claim that racist speech has been impinged upon when an Australian senator can openly say, “We are in danger of being swamped by Asians. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate”? Or, “We’re bringing in people from South Africa at the moment. There’s a huge amount coming into Australia who have diseases; they’ve got AIDS.” Or, “If you want to live the traditional way of life, I believe you can do that, but people here, who are as white as I am, and have the blue eyes, whatever, and claim Aboriginality to have all the benefits that go with it—I’m totally opposed to it.”

I am amazed that people can get away with these sorts of remarks and then dare to complain about free speech. I do not think now is an appropriate time to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act. This is a time to strengthen the Racial Discrimination Act. The Racial Discrimination Act—like the Age Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and the Sex Discrimination Act—aims to strengthen our society. It says we are all equal before the law. It tells people that racism and hatred are not tolerated in our country. These proposed changes severely weaken existing protections and enable political extremists to spread hate.

A question that has been posed to the supporters of weakening 18C is worth reflecting upon. What is it exactly that you want to be able to say or, more broadly, what remarks do you want other people to able to say that they are not currently able to do? Proponents claim this is about free speech. That is simply untrue. We have numerous examples in Australia where speech is limited. We have some of the strongest defamation laws in the world, and there are numerous other examples. I find the example of Australian workplaces no longer being allowed to use the word “scab” very telling. If these people cared so much about free speech then why not pursue legislation that enshrines Australia’s right to free speech in all areas of public life? Why does 18C get special treatment? Why do bigots get special treatment?

Some members of this Assembly might try to claim this as being simply a federal issue. We saw Alistair Coe interject on this earlier. We have seen it before. We have seen them try to dodge issues. We know they are embarrassed to state their view. To them I say this: do not underestimate your own voice; do not underestimate the power you have.

One of the main problems with these changes to 18C is not just the legal change, although that is very serious. The main problem is the message it sends. It is a message from our country’s leaders that racism is now acceptable, that bigotry is now acceptable. The only way this can be countered is by standing up and saying that this is not true and by challenging it every step of the way. We cannot change the federal legislation in this chamber, but we can set a standard for what is acceptable and we most definitely can act to toughen up the ACT Discrimination Act.

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