BILLS - Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 - Second Reading

I rise to speak on the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. We all know that in this place any law can always be changed and improved. The changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 proposed by the government weaken the protections for Australians against racial hate speech and racial discrimination. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and people have had no opportunity to comment upon the changes proposed in the bill. For reasons beyond my understanding, the Aboriginal Legal Service was not allowed to appear at last Friday's Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee hearing on the draft bill and the spokesperson for FECCA was not allowed to finish their opening statement by the chair of the Senate committee. But this should not be too surprising, given that these changes were insultingly announced on Harmony Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The Aboriginal Legal Service and other organisations may have contributed to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry report, but that is not the point. They were denied an opportunity to comment on the text of the new bill and the inclusion of 'harass' instead of 'insult, offend, humiliate'. They were denied the opportunity to comment on the introduction of 'a reasonable member of the Australian community' as the objective standard for determining a breach of the section.

This bill is not about freedom of speech; this bill is a display of contempt for Aboriginal Australians and members of multicultural communities. The Bolt, QUT and Leak matters all involved Aboriginal people, so Aboriginal organisations and individuals should have been consulted. Their exclusion from the process is disgraceful.

Section 18C, as it is currently drafted, is not 'an inappropriate mechanism of political censorship used to stop people from expressing opinion', as noted by Senator Brandis in his second reading speech. There is certainly scope to review the complaints process through the Australian Human Rights Commission, provided there are not additional delays, costs and impediments to justice. But the wording of 18C has served Australians well for more than 20 years. Section 18C is read in conjunction with section 18D. It ensures that freedom of speech is not unduly restricted. Neither the QUT case nor the Leak case provides a sound basis for amending section 18C. These are just two cases in a catalogue of 18C cases spanning over 20 years.

If we consider the Bolt case, it will be recalled that the articles he wrote were held to be discriminatory because they 'contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language'. When the articles were originally published, the public sentiments directed at Aboriginal people were hateful and vulgar. One of Bolt's readers responded to his article by writing in the online comments section: 'If only there were nerve gas chambers back in 1788.' Andrew Bolt's latest claim is that a person will have to be insulted on the basis of their race five times before they would fall under the government's definition of harassment. We know that in another case the court has interpreted 18C so that it only applies to 'profound and serious effects, not to be likened to mere slights'. Amending section 18C will not promote freedom of speech—it will promote racial hate speech and racial discrimination.

Seeking to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act illustrates that the Australian government is not genuinely committed to Closing the Gap. In the survey 'Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity (LEAD) Program 2010-2011' it was noted that: 'The link between poor physical health and mental health and self-reported perceptions or experiences of racism has been well documented. Racist attacks can cause injury and psychological distress. The targets of racism are at greater risk of developing a range of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, which are contributing factors to the health gap between Australia's First Peoples and other Australians.'

These are the real impacts of racism. If the new test of racial hate speech and racial discrimination is to be put to the hypothetical 'reasonable member of the Australian community', how do we gauge the input of fellow Australians from diverse cultures and backgrounds? The people who are pushing to amend section 18C have absolutely no idea about the toll of racism. Senator Hanson spoke of an incident of reverse racism yesterday and the incident is indeed unfortunate. But it does not illustrate that she understands and has felt the devastating damage and cost of sustained lifelong racism. Senator Hanson, and the other senators obsessed with amending 18C, have never known what it is like to grow up as 'other' in an exclusive society.

Senator Hanson also says that it will come down to the pub test. What bar will that be in—the white bar or the black bar? This type of unlegislated segregation still exists around Australia. Everyday Australians are not talking about changes to 18C at the pub this weekend. They are talking about when work will pick up again, how hard it is to buy a house in their town or suburb, or the future of their children—or they may be just talking about the footy or the cricket. This ideological campaign of certain members of the government and crossbench has no value to everyday Australians, whether they be Indigenous Australians, migrants or descendants of the First Fleet. This campaign is bereft of any tangible benefits because Australians already have freedom of speech in this country.

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