BY VIC ALHADEFF
The Daily Telegraph
June 18, 2014
THE scene: A weekend soccer match in Sydney. One of the players accidentally touches the ball with a hand. The father of a player in the opposing team unleashes a torrent of racist abuse.
Players of that race are all filthy cheats, he screams.
They are dirty and should go back where they came from. The players were 11-year-old girls.
The past six months has seen robust debate about the proposal to dilute legal protections against racial vilification. While the deadline for submissions has long passed, the debate, and the backlash against a change, continues unabated.
With 25 per cent of the people of NSW were born overseas and another 25 per cent have at least one parent born overseas, it is hardly surprising the representative organisations of numerous ethnic and indigenous communities have come out in opposition to the proposals. In fact, not one has expressed support.
The safeguards provided by Sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act have been in place for almost 20 years, including the 11 years of the Howard era, helping to resolve through conciliation hundreds of cases that would otherwise have been left to fester. Only a tiny percentage have gone to court.
Yet it would be a mistake to conclude opposition to the changes is about protecting minorities. Sections 18C and 18D act as a brake not only on homegrown racism, but against the importation into Australia of the racial hatreds that drive many overseas conflicts.
Keeping our country free of the effects of such hatreds protects every Australian.
Proponents of the changes claim they would introduce new protections, specifically against racial vilification, because the word “vilify’’ would be used for the first time.
This is disingenuous. Both supporters and opponents of the proposals have acknowledged the proposals would in fact weaken existing protections. First, the proposals don’t define “vilify” according to its dictionary meaning, which is “to speak evil of” or “defame”.
The new definition would be limited to “inciting” third-party onlookers. Racist abuse that does not “incite” others — racially abusing players on the field, for example — can nevertheless have a devastating effect on victims. This would not be covered.
Second, the proposals give “intimidate” an artificially narrow meaning — “to cause fear of physical harm”. The dictionary definition of “intimidate” covers a broad range of situations in which fear is caused beyond fear of physical harm. They might include fear of stigmatisation or exclusion from employment opportunities, fear for the wellbeing of loved ones.
While the courts have adopted the dictionary definition, proponents of the change have provided no sound reason for a narrower definition. Nor has anyone articulated what they would like to say that the law prevents them from saying.
Finally, even if conduct amounts to vilification or intimidation under the proposed change, it would enjoy exemption if it occurs during “public discussion”. This would likely include anything in the media, social media and at public meetings.
The changes would mean the effort against Facebook in 2012 which succeeded in removing hundreds of racist images and comments on 51 Facebook pages would have failed, as they did in the US, which has no law against racial vilification.
The harm of racial vilification extends well beyond hurt feelings. It can include disempowering victims by excluding them from society, limiting their liberty, intimidating them into silence. Racism desensitises society to the humanity of its targets, often as a precursor to violence.
The changes would send a signal that hate speech is sanctioned as freedom of speech and bigotry has a place in our society.
They would reassure those who harbour bigoted views that they may express them in public, aware their targets would have to suffer in silence or dignify their tormentors with a response.
The effect would be far fewer cases of racist behaviour would be deemed unlawful and many would not only be excused, but even celebrated as freedom of speech. The question is whether this is the kind of society we want Australia to be. Should there be no legal redress against a parent who hurls racist abuse at 11-year-old girls?
Vic Alhadeff is chair of the NSW Community Relations Commission.
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