Community against watering down of the Racial Hatred Act

November 12, 2013 by J-Wire Staff
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The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council and The Executive Council of Australian Jewry have both expressed dismay at Attorney-General George Brandis’s stated intentions of watering down the Federal Racial Hatred Act.

The decision to change the act followed high profile columnist Andrew Bolt writing on claims made by many that they were Aboriginal.

Peter Wertheim

Peter Wertheim

Dr Danny Lamm

Dr Danny Lamm

Peter Wertheim is the executive director of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He issued a joint statement with ECAJ President Dr Danny Lamm. They said: “Freedom of speech is fundamental to a free society and indispensable for human progress.  But it has never been regarded as absolute and unlimited.  In his famous Essay on Liberty the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, drew a distinction between liberty and licence.  He recognised that liberty does not mean the licence of individuals to do just as they please, because that would mean the absence of law and of order, and ultimately the destruction of liberty.

The existing Federal law strikes a careful balance between freedom of expression and freedom from racial vilification.  The courts have found that the current law does not violate the implied constitutional freedom to debate political matters.  The current law does not exist primarily to protect the majority, although it does that too.  In a democracy the majority can look after itself.  Laws against racial vilification are required to protect ethnic and national minorities, and in particular minority communities which may become the targets of public campaigns to portray them as unpopular or which are aimed at making them unpopular.

To be vilified because of one’s ethnicity or national origin, which are factors which one cannot change, is to be made a social pariah.  This can impact negatively on one’s relationships with neighbours, work-mates, friends, acquaintances and others with whom one needs to interact.  Belonging to a racially vilified group can undermine and ultimately destroy the sense of safety and security with which one goes about one’s daily life.  And, paradoxically for free speech advocates, racial vilification can have a silencing effect on those who are vilified. It deprives its targets of equal treatment and a fair go.

Historically, in other countries, racial vilification has been aimed at desensitising the general population to the humanity, dignity and human rights of members of the targeted group. This has been a precursor to discrimination, persecution, violence and, ultimately, genocide and other crimes against humanity.

The wholesale repeal of the sections of the Racial Discrimination Act which prohibit racial vilification would not only remove the means available to vilified groups to defend their reputations legally, it would also remove a key impediment against different ethnic and national communities vilifying one another in public discourse. It would thereby open the door to the importation into Australia of the hatreds and violence of overseas conflicts.  This is something that should deeply concern all Australians.

There is a way to amend the legislation, short of a wholesale repeal, to ensure that only the most serious cases are dealt with and to avoid any possibility of abuse.  We are keen to discuss these ideas with the Attorney-General and understand that he wishes to engage with us and other stakeholder communities before acting.  That is welcome news.   It is imperative that we have those discussions before any Bill is introduced into the Parliament, so that the terms of the Bill are informed by the government’s consultation with the community and do not pre-empt it.”


Dr Colin Rubenstein

Dr Colin Rubenstein

Executive Director of AIJAC Dr Colin Rubenstein said: “We believe the Federal Racial Hatred Act has, overall, contributed  constructively to social cohesion and harmony in Australia, with several significant matters adjudicated and settled over the past 17 years.

While the government made clear its concern with aspects of the law prior to the election, this was in the context of extensive consultations and review of the Act’s effectiveness prior to making changes – something we would welcome.

To pre-empt the outcome of such a review risks giving succour to racists, which is especially undesirable in the wake of a number of recent public incidents highlighting the continued prevalence of acts of racist victimisation in Australia, and returning victims of racism to a situation where they were left without any legal recourse at a national level .”


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