Racial discrimination laws no threat to free speech

28th Feb 2017

A review into Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act has shown that the country’s racial discrimination laws are working well and that there is no reason to alter the current legislation, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

ALA spokesperson and Barrister Greg Barns said that today’s report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights into freedom of speech in Australia showed that the Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC) and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act were an integral part of the effort to fight discrimination in Australia.

“Today’s report by the Joint Committee has shown that Australia’s anti-discrimination laws are an effective and appropriate method for people to seek justice when they feel they have been discriminated against,” Mr Barns said.

“We are reassured by the Joint Committee’s recommendations that politicians and community leaders use their freedom of speech to condemn discrimination and racially hateful speech. Recommending education programs to eliminate hate speech is also welcomed.”

“The HRC performs an invaluable community service by encouraging people to come together to talk about their experiences of being discriminated against and being accused of discrimination,” Mr Barns said.

“It helps to stop racism before it starts, making our community a safer place for all of us. It also stops many cases that might otherwise end up in the courts by conciliating complaints, saving valuable time and money.”

“Revelations in recent days suggest that the two main cases which were used to justify changes to section 18C of the Act – the complaints involving the Queensland University of Technology[1] and Bill Leak[2] – reveal that the HRC acted appropriately in both cases.

Mr Barns said the review showed that section 18C of the Act was a strong protection of human rights in Australia.

“The case for change to section 18C of the Act has not been made,” Mr Barns said. “It is not against the law to hurt someone’s feelings. It never has been. People who have claimed that it is have engaged in deliberate mischief.”

“There is a strong body of case law that interprets the current legislation – the threshold of proof that some has been discriminated against is actually very high.”

“Section 18C in fact protects the right of minorities to speak. Experience has shown that being discriminated against in fact silences the victim,” Mr Barns said.  

“There are many more serious threats to our freedom of speech than section 18C, which include criminal sanctions, which have not been subjected to the scrutiny that this protective legislation has.

“Some of these other laws threaten to undermine our ability to scrutinise the actions of the government, and could undermine our democracy. The Committee has recommended a broader inquiry into these limitations, which we look forward to.

“Prime Minister Turnbull was right when he said that reforming 18C is not a priority,” Mr Barns said.

“In fact, given the state of global affairs at the moment, it could be dangerous to do so and would compromise community cohesion.”

Tags: Human rights Access to justice Equality Discrimination Greg Barns