CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Move on 18C a return to a classic Liberal position
, April 8, 2017
Malcolm Turnbull’s bold decision to reform the Racial Discrimination Act to make it less subjective and more robust and effective has been labeled as another burden he will have to take to the next election that will deny him votes.
Bill Shorten’s Labor thinks it is on a winner on section 18C of the act, believing that it has won the moral high ground on racism and the political high ground with the ethnic communities, who he thinks will side with it over the Coalition.
Their optimism on this front is premature and misguided.
There ain't nobody else here; you must be talkin' to me ...
In simple terms the Coalition, no doubt spurred by the sudden death of prominent controversial cartoonist Bill Leak, decided to bite the bullet and fix the Racial Discrimination Act, which was being abused both by would-be victims of racial intolerance and by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which administers the act.
Section 18C was added to the Racial Discrimination Act in 1995 and makes it illegal to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of a person’s race, colour or national ethnic origin.
Section 18D provides some exemptions: for example, anything said during the performance of an artistic work and the publishing of media commentary.
However, in recent times the commission has given every appearance of seeking out potential cases to prosecute and urging “victims” to come forward, including chasing up people in distant parts of Australia who might have been offended by a Bill Leak cartoon they had not yet seen.
The Turnbull Government now proposes to amend 18C of the act to remove the offences “insult” “humiliate” and “offend” and replace them with the higher test of “harass”.
Importantly, the new test to be applied in complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission will be the standard of a “reasonable member of the community”.
Originally, Mr Turnbull was reluctant to weigh into the policy issue, one that Tony Abbott too had also resisted because of the minefield of ethnic politics. But in the end the absurdity of the law, which makes possible racial slurs entirely subjective, prompted Mr Turnbull to act.
Editor-at-large of The Australian Paul Kelly summed up the Government’s move on the Human Rights Commission: “Malcolm Turnbull has decided to fight the battle from which Tony Abbott as prime minister walked away. This is classic Liberal Party philosophy — belief in liberty and personal freedom. The evolution of Turnbull into a conviction Prime Minister has entered another decisive stage, with Turnbull realising he must unite his Coalition base and prove his beliefs.
“Turnbull has crossed the Rubicon. There is no going back. This is a core change in Liberal Party policy — it will endure until the next election, whether passed or rejected by the Senate.
“The stakes for both Turnbull and Bill Shorten are high. For Turnbull, the struggle will be dangerous and the electoral consequences decisive because this has the potential to destroy his Government at the next election in the ethnic seats of Sydney and Melbourne.”
Labor and sections of the commentariat have tried to dismiss discussions about any proposed reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act as not relevant and not “job creating”.
The proposed changes are likely to be defeated in the Senate, which means that the Coalition will go to the election with the changes as part of its policy platform.
While News Limited and The Australian newspaper in particular have driven the discussion, other sections of the media, namely Fairfax, have come out in opposition to any changes. It is nothing short of extraordinary that any journalist would oppose measures to secure free speech, but in the post-modern era identity politics and victim politics trump freedom of speech.
It is true that ethnic leaders will condemn the Coalition’s new policy. But the reality is that the scourge of identity politics, whereby each subset of the community, whether race, religion or gender type, has its own set of rules, is something towards which the general community has deep resistance.
The new test in the Racial Discrimination Act is basically, what would a reasonable Australian think about a comment, a cartoon, or any other public pronouncement or artwork?
Australians are a robust people: a streak of larrikinism, good humour and irreverence runs through their veins.
On the other hand, there are also incontrovertible elements of racist behaviour and race-based policy in its short history. But the “reasonable person test” seems a reasonable compromise, and one that the great bulk of people, including the newest Australians, will not object to.