Friday, 8 November 2013
Australia’s newly minted Attorney General, George Brandis, will apparently make the first legislation he puts forward to parliament one that repeals a section of the federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The section in question is one of the more recent additions that makes it unlawful to insult or humiliate a person on the basis of his or her race.
I’m not entirely sure how I should feel about this.
You see, there’s a part of me that is convinced this very law is responsible for the misguided political correctness I wrote about last week. That’s not to say the law is defective; it’s the woman who took issue with me who is probably a little suspect. That said, a law is only effective if it can be enforced, and I question whether that could’ve been done to any substantial degree.
Let me explain.
The Racial Discrimination Act was originally designed to protect legal rights and opportunities. Section 9 protects people from any act that places them at a disadvantage in public life, be it social, political, cultural or economic. That means, generally, you can’t be fired from your job or denied an education on the basis of your race, but you can still be kicked out of someone’s private residence for being of the wrong skin tone: the Act applies to public life only.
Likewise, section 9 can’t stop the lady at the local fish ‘n chip shop from speaking her mind about all the ‘filthy immigrants’ flooding into her neighbourhood: as long as she’s still serving them, and not trying to poison them or rip them off, she’s not doing anything wrong. And hey, it’s not like there’s a law against being an asshole, is there? Besides, as long as I get my fish ‘n chips, who cares what she thinks?
That’s where section 18C comes in. It goes that step further to make it unlawful for her to even say that.
But who’s going to report her? How is anyone supposed to prove it? In the real world, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is at best something that lets us legitimately guilt racists into keeping their nasty thoughts to themselves.
There have been successful prosecutions, however. Media personalities with audiences of thousands and whose musings are recorded in print are prime targets for this law. Hard right columnist Andrew Bolt received a slap on the wrist for an unkind piece he wrote about Aboriginal Australians.
Apart from the media, however, I’m struggling to recall more than a handful of instances where section 18C could have been enforced so publicly. The people in Melbourne who made a stunning racist attack on a French tourist were eventually charged, though for mostly assault-related offences; the woman who abused school students on a Sydney bus eventually faced criminal sanctions for using offensive language; and I don’t know if anything ever came of the time ABC presenter Jeremy Fernandez was the subject of a racist attack in full view of his young daughter.
No meaningful consequence ever came of the time former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s partner, Tim Mathieson , famously quipped that men should get their prostates checked, by a “small female Asian doctor”, presumably to indulge in a sexual fetish.
In fact, now that I think about it, section 18C hasn’t stopped people from joking about Asian men having tiny penises. It certainly didn’t stop a contingent of publicists at Foxtel joking with me about all Asians being bad drivers, as if I’d find it hilarious.
It literally went like this:
“Did you hear about the latest news story about Kim Kardashian?”
“Ugh. Unfortunately I did. I caught it in the car just before I came up…”
“Is that how all Asians drive?”
“…in the parking lot.”
“Oh. Oh don’t worry, I didn’t mean anything by it. But isn’t it true though?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“That Asians drive that way?”
“And what way would that be?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t. I can only speak for myself.”
I guess I’d lean towards saying the law has never worked very well to begin with.
Will repealing this law suddenly open the floodgates to more openly racist jokes and insults?
Then again, I’d rather avoid assuming the worst in everyone – there’s a good chance things will stay roughly the same (which in a way is saying there’ll still be quite a lot). But removing a law that prohibits people from being assholes isn’t going to suddenly turn everyone into assholes, right? Or maybe it’ll just encourage a few to come out of the closet?
I’ve seen enough of this country to know how far you need to push a person to provoke a racist epithet. I can tell which ones are ashamed of it, and are only saying it because it’s what they were raised with. I can tell which ones honestly think they’re being funny and don’t see the harm in it. And I can tell which ones really mean it and want the words to hurt.
Whatever the intent, they’re equally demeaning, equally hurtful.
Brandis himself doesn’t offer a great deal of clarity, justifying the move as follows: “’you cannot have a situation in a liberal democracy in which the expression of an opinion is rendered unlawful because somebody else … finds it offensive or insulting”… ”It is a very important part of my agenda to re-centre that debate so that when people talk about rights, they talk about the great liberal democratic rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of worship and freedom of the press.”
In the 113 years since Australia federated, its citizens have never enjoyed a constitutionally enshrined “freedom of expression”. He’s obviously got us confused with the USA. Thankfully, we do enjoy a freedom of religion, but the so-called “freedom of the press” is only implied insofar as it relates to political speech – and even that isn’t absolute.
It frankly beggars belief that a member of one of the most conservative Australian governments in recent memory is pandering to such a progressive notion, but I digress.
If this law is being repealed just so that one grub of a media commentator and his like-minded lackeys can take all the free kicks they want at minority groups, then we are headed for dark days indeed.