The ECAJ welcomes reform to the Australian Human Rights Act

February 1, 2017 by J-Wire Staff
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The executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry Peter Wertheim has spoken before the the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Chinese Australian Forum representatives ( Paul Han, Enrich Cheah, Tony Pang, Patrick Voon, Chesney O’Donnell Luan Thiam with Sophia Corsis MP ( Canterbury) Peter Wertheim (Executive Council of Jewry) and George Vellis ( Hellenic Council of Australia)

Wertheim told the committee that his colleagues are leaders of organisations representing the Indigenous, Greek, Chinese, Armenian, Vietnamese, Lebanese and Indian communities.

Peter Wertheim

Wertheim said:”Despite our very diverse backgrounds, we are all proud Australians and want what is best for Australia. We do not approach this issue from a narrow sectional viewpoint or from the perspective of partisan politics. Many of these organisations have made their own submissions to this Inquiry and have appeared, or are due to appear, before it.

At the outset let me say that the ECAJ would welcome any reforms to the Australian Human Rights Act 1986 (Cth) or to the practices and procedures of the Australian Human Rights Commission which would help to screen out manifestly unmeritorious complaints in a timely manner before conciliation occurs, and which would strongly discourage such complaints from proceeding to court

But any deficiencies in the process should not be relied upon to alter the existing important substantive protections under Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act (the RDA). All of the community organisations represented here today believe that the provisions of Part IIA of the RDA should at the very least be left in their current form or, if anything, should be strengthened to include protections in addition to those already provided, especially during troubled times like now, when political developments in Europe and the US are fanning the existing flames of extremism in Australia.

The contentions about political theory which are put forward by critics of Part IIA, and of section 18C in particular, do not resonate with the lived experience of most members of communities like ours. From the Jewish people’s own long and painful historical experience, we have learned that acts of racially-motivated violence invariably begin with racist words. As Professor Greg Barton, a counter-terrorism expert at Deakin University was recently quoted as saying:

“One of the things you want Australians to pay attention to is recognising that hateful speech and incitement to hatred in the political field is not just something that remains a political play. It has the potential to give people a sense of a green light to be more outrageous in their opinions and eventually those individuals have some sort of social license to try some sort of attack.” (Rachel Olding, ‘White supremacist threatened to shoot up Central Coast shopping centre’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 2017.)

Even when Australia had no State or Federal anti-racism laws at all, fully one-quarter of all complaints received by the then Human Rights Commission under the RDA concerned racist statements, according to a report it published in 1983. Nothing could better illustrate the need for a peaceful, legal mechanism to deal with such complaints, and the danger that would be posed to social cohesion if such a mechanism, and the laws that support it, did not exist.

The demonstrated ineffectiveness of Federal and State criminal provisions which are intended to proscribe urging of violence on the basis of race further underlines the need for strong and effective civil remedies.

Despite repeated assertions in the media that the words “offend” and “insult” in section 18C set the bar too low, the courts have consistently found that section 18C applies only if the offence and insult occurs because of the complainant’s racial, ethnic or national background, and only if it has “profound and serious effects, not to be likened to trivial slights”. The harms against which section18C is directed involve a profoundly and seriously adverse impact on the complainant’s quality of life. Even then, the conduct might be exempted under section 18D, something which critics of section 18C frequently overlook or downplay.

Finally, we are not aware of any evidence whatsoever, that the percentage of vexatious or unmeritorious claims under section 18C of the RDA is higher than under any other statutory regime for relief, such as the law of defamation, copyright, consumer protection and trade practices.”

The hearing is part of the federal Parliamentary Inquiry into Freedom of Speech – Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) and the Australian Human Rights Commission. It met at the NSW State Parliament.

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