The Abbott Government’s announcement on August 5 that it would be dropping its proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act serves as a testament to all of the individuals, multicultural and community groups who actively opposed these regressive changes.
Many I met in my travels right across Australia. Their passion and drive to defeat this proposal was heart-warming and inspiring.
The beauty of our nation is that whilst we hold incredible diversity within our borders, we are united and share common goals and purposes as Australians.
We saw this harmony powerfully exhibited as communities right around Australia rallied together to vehemently oppose the Abbott Government’s desire to allow racist hate speech to be tolerated and bigotry accepted.
Since the exposure draft of the amendments was first released by the Attorney-General George Brandis we saw a joint statement from Indigenous, Armenian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Greek and Jewish groups condemning the proposed amendment, noting that any change “would mean that the Federal Government has decided to licence the public humiliation of people because of their race”.
In Lakemba, in Sydney’s south-west, the proposed changes prompted over 800 community members to march in opposition.
The legal profession, human rights experts, psychologists and public health professionals all voiced their objection to weakening laws against racial vilification.
Local government, not to mention some of the Government’s own backbenchers, also voiced its opposition to the amendments, with close to 50 local councils right across Australia passing motions in support of retaining the current law.
The Abbott Government also saw a united backlash from its Liberal colleagues in Victoria and New South Wales, with both State Governments releasing a joint statement that the proposed changes would, “threaten the social cohesion and wellbeing of not just our states’ culturally and religiously diverse communities, but also the wider Australian community”.
Additionally, more than 5,500 submissions were sent to the Attorney-General’s office, with research showing more than 76 per cent of these submissions opposed the proposed changes.
This, it should be noted, is in spite of a spurious consultation process in which the Abbott Government did not organise any public hearings or information sessions, and only allowed a few weeks for submissions.
Furthermore, no major report or inquiry was provided by the Government prior to the release of the draft amendments to the Act. The government has also refused to make submissions publicly available as would normally happen with any proper consultation.
Yet, in spite of this overwhelming public backlash, in announcing his Government’s back down, Tony Abbott termed it as merely an unnecessary “complication” for the Government.
That the Prime Minister could describe his abandonment in terms of a simple political calculation highlights an uncomplicated truth: the eloquent arguments expressed in opposing the weakening of our race hate protections did not convince the Government to abandon its reckless course.
In reality, what convinced the Government to back down was that the political costs of continuing on its hugely unpopular and ideologically driven course were simply too great.
So whilst we have had a temporary back down, the truth is that the Government’s ideological blinkers are still firmly in place.
We need to only look at Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s assertion that he will ignore the Prime Minister and co-sponsor a bill in the Senate to change the Act, because such action is “absolutely consistent” with Liberal Party values.
Racist hate speech has no place in any society, especially in our nation which prides itself on its rich multiculturalism and cultural harmony.
No matter how many times Attorney-General George Brandis tries to validate his position as being of the national interest, there will never be justification for bigotry or racial vilification.
The public outcry against the proposed changes is an emphatic statement of fundamental truths about who we are as Australians. We are a tolerant society, bound by our many cultures, which values racial tolerance and social cohesion above politics or ideology.
The Racial Discrimination Act has served to provide an expression of these tenets.
It would be prudent for the Abbott Government to recognise this and acknowledge that its attack on the Racial Discrimination Act was much more than a “complication”.
This opinion piece was first published in The Ethnic Broadcaster’s Spring edition.