SUBJECT/S: Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; Indigenous legal services; Bill Leak cartoon

MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I’m here with Senator Patrick Dodson, talking to Aboriginal Legal Services, because I think it’s very important that I as the Shadow Attorney-General and of course Senator Dodson as well, to learn firsthand what’s happening at the frontline of services being provided to Aboriginal people. That includes, just behind us we’ve got the Aboriginal Legal Service, but as well there’s the Kimberley Community Legal Centre and the Western Australian Aboriginal Family Law Service, and the Legal Aid Commission of Western Australia who we’ve been talking to as well.

All of those legal services work together, but they are all under immense pressure. They are under immense pressure because there have been cuts right from the start of the Abbott and Turnbull Governments, starting in December 2013 and continuing right until today. Some protests from Labor, from Aboriginal communities, from people who are served by Community Legal Centres, have produced the result that some of those cuts have been reversed, but both Community Legal Centres and the Aboriginal Legal Services across Australia are facing, as of 1 July 2017, very substantial cuts. That’s wrong. It’s wrong because it’s going in the reverse direction to what it should be.

This is a time of rising legal need. We’ve had our minds concentrated on this in particular in relation to youth justice in the Northern Territory, a couple of weeks back with those dreadful images that we saw on the Four Corners program. Part of that problem and I am certain that the Royal Commission that has been now established that we welcome, part of that problem is caused by a lack of legal assistance services, and I’m pretty confident that the Royal Commission is going to be recommending that there should be an increase in legal assistance services.

There’s one other matter I want to deal with today, and Senator Dodson will have something else to say I think, and that’s simply to say that this continuing talk about the amendment or repeal of Section 18C should stop. We’ve had consistently for a couple of years since Prime Minister Abbott ruled out going on with the attack on Section 18C, responding appropriately to community opposition, which I was very proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with. It was ruled out by Tony Abbott, it should stay ruled out. Notwithstanding Coalition MPs that have suggested since that it should go, that removing protections against race hate speech, this incoming crop of Senators have in mind. Senator-to-be Roberts of the One Nation Party, who’s now said that he wants to abolish Section 18C. Senator Leyonhjelm has again repeated something, he’s not a new Senator, but he wants to repeal Section 18C in its entirety. Senator-to-be Derryn Hinch has said he wants to take away the protections that have been there now for over 20 years. I call on Mr Turnbull to absolutely rule out any further attack on Section 18C, which has served our community very well.

REPORTER: If I can just go back to the legal cuts.

DREYFUS: Does Senator Dodson want to say something before we go to your questions?

SENATOR PATRICK DODSON: I just want to acknowledge that the Shadow Attorney is in the Kimberley, visiting these legal services that are totally under resourced and that have huge challenges, but are doing a magnificent job in the face of that adversity. And it’s great to have firsthand knowledge of that, and we certainly appreciate the fact that he’s able to come and listen to those who are at the coalface of these issues, and I certainly endorse his remarks in relation to the further and continuing discussions about amending the Racial Discrimination Act. That’s a matter that really ought to be put to bed. Malcolm Turnbull has to really say that that’s no longer part of a bargaining tool with any of the crossbenchers.

REPORTER: Just quickly, back to the legal cuts, what specifically are they aiming to cut, what are you concerned about most?

DREYFUS: There’s cuts of about 30 percent coming to the Community Legal Centres right across Australia, that’s the more than 130 Community Legal Centres that are funded by the Commonwealth Government. In some cases they also get money from State Governments. Here in the Kimberley, it’s the Kimberley Community Legal Centre, which has its primary office, with I think four solicitors, in Kununurra, and a branch office, that’s the office we’re standing in front of, here in Broome, with two solicitors. Both offices do outreach services as well, across the Kimberley. They are stretched to the maximum, and that 30 percent cut that they and Community Legal Centres are facing across Australia, is going to have a dire impact on the services that they are able to provide to the community.

It is absolutely the wrong time, when you would think we have a Commonwealth Government that is saying that it wants to do something about family violence, we’ve got a Commonwealth Government that is saying that it supports access to justice, but it is not [inaudible]. That will mean reversing these cuts to Community Legal Centres. For Aboriginal Legal Services, the cuts that were initially announced when the Abbott Government came to power, were in part reversed, thanks to protests from 2014 to 2015. They are now facing, collectively, the Aboriginal Legal Services in each state and territory, a cut of $4 million per year that will start on 1 July 2017. And again I’d say, at a time when we are saying, with the establishment of the Royal Commission by Mr Turnbull and Senator Brandis last week, should, you would hope, reflect their concern about the way the youth justice system in the Northern Territory is operating. We don’t need to wait for the recommendations of the Royal Commission. We can have action from the Commonwealth Government right now to reverse those cuts and actually increase the amount of money going to these vital legal assistance services.

REPORTER: On 18C, I think I’d like to know from both of you, why do you think this keeps coming up, why does it keep rearing its head?

DREYFUS: It’s hard to speculate about the motives of your political opponents, but I think what’s driving it is an ill-informed position. It’s a misunderstanding of what Section 18C does. Section 18C sets a community line, a standard for the way in which we speak to each other in this country, and it draws a line against race hate speech.

It’s actually in compliance with Australia’s international obligations, under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, we agreed years ago that we would have Australian law against race hate speech, that’s what Section 18C does. It’s got an inbuilt defence in Section 18D, that protects political speech, protects good faith comment on political matters, protects artistic expression, and it’s only civil, that’s another thing I’ll say. I was listening to Senator-to-be Derryn Hinch last week, saying that it sends people to gaol. Well it doesn’t. It’s not a criminal law, it doesn’t even give you the right to sue for damages like a defamation case. What it does do is allow you to complain to the Human Rights Commission, there is then a compulsory conciliation between the person who has spoken the race hate speech and the victim, and if that fails you can then go off to the Federal Court. Only a minute proportion of these disputes have ever gone off to the Federal Court, and all of them have been serious cases. So that’s the position, and I don’t think that those who are railing against Section 18C actually fully understand the way the law works, nor have they understood the good that it does, but what I am certain about is that ethnic communities, Aboriginal communities right across Australia very firmly understand the good this law does and that’s why they’ve fought so hard to protect it.

REPORTER: Senator, is that something you [inaudible]

DODSON: I think it’s absolutely clear that what Mark has said is not understood by those that feel that there’s something missing in their capacity to speak clearly and plainly. They’ve got to understand that they’ve got to do that respectfully and responsibly, and if they don’t do that, it’s against the better traditions that Australia stands for. When people continuously bring that up, what it tells me is that they haven’t had any education about why there’s a real good reason for being respectful to others whom you may not necessarily like.

REPORTER: Do you see any method for making sure that this doesn’t come up again? Is there any way that this can be communicated or sold better to the community, about the importance of this?

DREYFUS: As I say, I don’t think there’s much doubt across most of our community as to the worth of drawing a line and saying, that’s outside the line. That’s why when the Abbott Government and Senator Brandis announced that they were going to attack Section 18C and weaken the protection that it provides, there was a very large community campaign, with more than 150 community groups from right across Australia, with Jewish community and Arab community groups sitting together, or Aboriginal community groups all saying ‘Don’t touch this law.’

So I think there is already an understanding, but I think what we need is for Prime Minister Mr Turnbull to rule this out. What I’m worried about is you’re going to get continuing pressure from some of these crossbenchers in the Senate, sitting with Senator Dodson there in the Senate, and they now exercise a position of some influence, because their votes are needed by the Government to pass some pieces of legislation. I don’t want anyone using the repeal or amendment of Section 18C as a bargaining chip, and that’s something that the Prime Minister can do. He can rule it out.

REPORTER: Senator Dodson, if I can ask you about the early stages of the Royal Commission, are you happy with the processes at this stage?

DODSON: Well it is a process and it has clear terms of reference. There’s a fair bit of work that they have to undertake. Obviously the input from the Indigenous community is going to be critical, and the ways in which laws are made in the Northern Territory, and questioning the attitudes that surround that. I think there’s a lot of work in a relatively short space of time that will be required of this Commission, and it won’t be as extensive as a lot of people might like it to be, and it’s certainly not going to touch juvenile justice in the other jurisdictions, which I think is a bit of a pity. That matter will no doubt arise, particularly if the Prime Minister is intent on bringing juvenile justice into the COAG arena, and to seriously have a look at how that matter can be pursued either politically or through other forms of enquiry.

REPORTER: Do you think that Mick Gooda’s appointment is a step in the right direction?

DODSON: Well that is what people were calling for. They were calling for two Indigenous Co-commissioners. They happened to get one. Mick Gooda is a reputable individual. He’s shown his concerns about social justice matters. I think Mick will do a very good job.

REPORTER: And just widely, do you have concerns about the treatment of juveniles in detention in WA?

DODSON: There are concerns in WA, there’s no doubt about that. Any child that’s treated in a brutal way in a detention centre or held in solitary confinement for long hours is a concern. The whole question of punitive sort of justice is a matter we’re going to have to deal with, not only in Western Australia but in other jurisdictions. And that’s a matter that I hope the COAG meeting looks at and works out the best way to deal with this.

REPORTER: And just quickly, did you have a reaction to Bill Leak’s cartoon from earlier in the week and if so, what did you make of the social media response? I see that you featured in it, a photo of you was passed around social media.

DODSON: Well, the problem with the cartoon is that it vilifies all men, Aboriginal men, as not being responsible, as not having love for their children, and not being attentive to the needs of their children. And to vilify Aboriginal men as such is not a very helpful matter. There are many good men in this country who are good dads, and who take exceptional care of their children and I would have hoped that the Leak cartoon, if he wants to deal with responsibility, should look at that across the whole of family structures in Australia, and not just single out Indigenous people.

DREYFUS: And if I could just add, it’s a lovely response to that unfortunate Leak cartoon, that we’ve now got this campaign that’s gone viral on social media, with fantastic images of Aboriginal men and their kids, including a very nice one of Senator Dodson and his son. I can’t think of a better response.


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