Professor of Politics and Public Policy Katharine Gelber, from UQ’s School of Political Science and International Studies, said Federal Government plans to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act could have dire consequences for society.
Her warning comes in the first week of sittings of the new Parliament.
“One of the first items on the agenda is to repeal a section of the Racial Discrimination Act,” she said..
“Attorney General George Brandis is proposing to wind back the laws that make it unlawful to vilify people because of their race.
“He claims that repealing racial vilification laws will restore free speech to its full power,” she said.
“If we remove the protections of anti-vilification law there will be more discrimination every day, on street corners, in public parks, on public transport and in schools.
“It would give succour to those who want a national debate infused with discrimination, and would support those who believe that anything goes in the name of free speech.
“Crucially, it would remove the reminder that anti-vilification laws give us that, like all rights, the right to freedom of speech carries corresponding responsibilities.
“One of these is the responsibility to speak ‘well’, to find a way to express your views without harming others,” she said.
Professor Gelber said public debate around free speech had been simmering since 2011, when journalist Andrew Bolt was found to have breached the federal anti-vilification laws.
He had written columns suggesting that fair-skinned Indigenous people were falsely claiming Indigenous status in order to secure personal gain.
“Andrew Bolt claimed exemption under the defence of ‘fair comment made in good faith’, but the Federal Court ruled against him, saying his commentary contained errors and distortions of the truth, and used inflammatory and provocative language,” Professor Gelber said.
“Public debate over free speech has taken a turn for the worse since then.
“The judgment provided a forum for Andrew Bolt to position himself – erroneously – as the one whose speech had been silenced, and led to a promise by then-Opposition leader Tony Abbott and then-Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis to repeal federal anti-vilification legislation when elected.”
Professor Gelber said if the government was serious about protecting freedom of speech it should amend anti-vilification laws rather than repeal them.
“In New South Wales, vilification is defined as conduct that incites hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of a person on one of the specified grounds.”
She said the NSW terminology was stronger than the federal legislation, focussed on conduct clearly related to racial hatred and drew from the language of international treaties that underscored Australia’s obligations to prohibit hate speech.
“Amending federal racial anti-vilification laws so they focused on the incitement of hatred would achieve real and lasting protection for freedom of speech – and its responsibilities,” she said.
Professor Gelber is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow.
She is co-author (with Professor Luke McNamara of the University of Wollongong) of an article titled “Freedom of speech and racial vilification in Australia: The Bolt case in public discourse”, to be published in the next issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science.
To hear Prof Gelber discuss this issue in more detail go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rH86ysPCuiA&feature=youtu.be –