Australia to amend parts of the Racial Discrimination Act

| May 26, 2014

The Abbott government has announced plans to amend sections of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), in particular Section 18C. Ben Mapuranga argues that this is not the time to change one of the pillars of Australia’s multicultural society.

The Attorney-General George Brandis released a draft Bill on the proposed amendments to the Act on the 25th of March 2014.

The Racial Discrimination Act was passed in 1975 under the Prime Ministership of Gough Whitlam. This was long overdue, in light of decades of racial segregation and inequality under the White Australia policy which discriminated against other ethnic groups in Australian society including Aboriginal Australians on racial grounds. One of the crucial parts to be amended is Section 18C, which makes it illegal to publicly “insult, offend, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group of people.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 gives effect to Australia’s obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Its major objectives are first to promote equality before the law for all persons, regardless of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin; and secondly make discrimination against people on the basis of their race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin unlawful.

Serious concerns have been raised in response to the proposed changes. Amending the Racial Discrimination Act could lead to race riots and violence because you are taking away legal protections that safeguard members of society from racial vilification, and by doing so you are providing a platform for people to insult, intimidate and humiliate a person or group on the basis of their skin colour or ethnic origin, that is, race.

The government’s own backbench has criticised the changes to Section 18C. Several ethnic groups within Australia have already advised the government no to go ahead with the changes. The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) pointed out that making changes to the Act would leave ethnic groups and individuals susceptible to racial vilification. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said there are no compelling reasons to weaken legal protections against racism.

Opposition to the amendments of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has not only come from community organisations, civic boardies or lobby groups.  The Australian public is against the proposed changes as well. A poll that was conducted by Fairfax-Nielsen found that 88 percent of respondents were opposed to making it legal to insult, offend and/or humiliate a person or group on the grounds of their race. In another survey conducted by the University of Sydney, nearly 80 percent of Australians were in support of the current Racial Discrimination Laws and legal protection against racial vilification.

This affirms the political and social maturity of Australia as a multicultural society. The Racial Discrimination Act does not portray Australia’s multicultural society nor is it its backbone, but the two complement each other in significant ways. Multiculturalism is a fundamental value that defines 21st century Australia. This does not mean everyone is going to support the notion of a multicultural society, as is evidenced by those who are willing to champion their rights to bigotry. In the event that the amendments are made to this legislation; what are the implications of that in regards to our freedoms and human rights? Will that legitimise and sanction racism and acts of racial abuse? Is the change going to guarantee the continuation of legal protections against racial vilification?

The present multicultural Australia is a testament this country has moved forward, in some respects, from the days of its former historical self. It is, understandably, not a perfect society in regards to social relations but ditching legal protections against racial bigotry will only be equivalent to taking two steps back and one step forward. The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 can be interpreted, to a certain degree, as a stand point upon which Australia’s multicultural society flourishes. Surely this is not the time or era to amend parts of it.