If you’ve got nothing nice to say… Say it anyway?

21 Aug 2014

The Australian Federal Government’s decision to pull the plug on their proposed amendments to racial discrimination laws has been slammed by liberal-leaning Australians.

Earlier this year, the Government publicised plans to fulfil their election promise of abolishing 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and this announcement was met with severe backlash from minority groups around the country.

Throw in Brandis’ famous utterance proclaiming that we all should have ‘the right to be a bigot,’ Australia’s media fast became a backdrop for hot debate about free speech and the rights of minority groups.

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” because of their race or ethnicity.

Minorities argued that repealing 18C would strip them of protection against hate speech and other negative action.

Australian Jewry was among the minorities to speak out against the reforms, due to reports showcasing a 21% increase of racist violence against Jewish individuals and facilities.

Since the Government backed down from the laws, the backlash of minority groups has subsided.

However, the debate has persisted with added focus on the fractured and undefined nature of free speech in Australia. 18C’s purpose has also come under question.

Graeme Orr, Professor of Law at The University of Queensland believes that the debate surrounding the 18C reforms has been blown out of proportion, and suggests that it may represent Australia’s ongoing struggle with xenophobia.

“The 18C debate is largely symbolic. A lot of it is motivated by deeper or wider concerns about multiculturalism.”

In his article for Inside Story, Professor Orr claims that selective outrage is a key issue with the 18C debate.

He compared publicity generated by the Bolt Case and the Monis Case, where Muslim Australians wrote ‘offensive’ letters to families of Australian soldiers.

“Neither Millian liberals, or the tabloids, invoked the principles of free speech to defend a Muslim Australian.”

Professor Orr purports racism is behind the uproar for 18C.

Professor James Allan of The University of Queensland denies that 18C does anything to stop racism, or that 18C and the idea of the law trying to stop people offending others is unacceptable in a liberal democracy.

In his comments to The Australian, Professor Allan said “the idea that this little law is going to do anything is garbage, to be totally honest.”

“They want to say we are a seething cesspool of racism and yet this little civil liability provision that gets the odd Bolt case once in a while is going to fix it – it’s palpable nonsense,” Professor Allan said.

Professor Orr urges the debate to be redirected to harder-hitting free speech laws.

“If liberals are serious about free speech, they’d be doing more jumping up and down about defamation laws which can cost hundreds and thousands of dollars as well as criminal laws against offensive speech generally.”

Though the law may not punish every “offensive” example of communication, Professor Orr believes the law does have some responsibility in fostering positive speech.

“There is certainly room for the laws to encourage respectful and informed speech… There can be complaints against the press or shock-jock, and there might be conciliation processes and apologies,” he said.

Free speech isn’t a helpful buzzword, rather promoting “interests in respectful, informed debate,” is Professor Orr’s outlook. He believes “the law shouldn’t be imposing costs or criminal sanctions on speech generally speaking.”

Professor Allan presents a stronger view for free speech laws – simply that the Government should not curtail hate speech.

 “Apparently the Government now implicitly agrees that you can’t trust your average Australian to see through the rantings of Neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers,” he said. 

Both Professors denounce 18C’s relevance to the free speech debate, yet the popularisation of this issue has led to a thoughtful analysis of free speech in Australia, and its relevance to the protection of racial minorities.