THERE is a tension between racial hate and free speech. Racial discrimination in all its forms is despicable. On the other hand, one of the fundamentals of democracy is freedom of speech.
This tension provides the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, with a brilliant opportunity for the political games of distraction, consolidation and appealing to base instincts.
Using World Harmony Day to announce the intention to move changes to Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 seemed politically naive.
Naïve, that is, unless the attempt was to seriously distract from his other political challenges. And, as more and more people become enraged over the $50 billion tax break to corporate Australia, the Prime Minister needs distractions.
The proposed tax break comes at a time when company profits increased over the last year by 20 per cent while wages fell in real terms. This was salt in the wound of the decision by Fair Work Australia to slash the Sunday penalty rates of the poorest working Australians. The Prime Minister was badly in need of a distraction.
He also needed to consolidate the conservative elements of his party, who have been pushing for the change to Section 18c. It is only the ultra-conservative rump of the parliament that has been pushing for the change. Even Tony Abbott put it on the backburner as a bad idea.
The proponents are pushing for the change on ideological grounds. Whereas the Prime Minister is much more pragmatic. So, why would he go down this path unless it was politically advantageous?
Section 18c has been examined extensively. No changes have been recommended to this clause in the legislation. The report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights “Freedom of Speech in Australia” set the tone. More than 10,000 submissions were made. After a thorough examination, the committee did not recommend any changes to this section of the Act.
Instead, the committee outlined the issues at Recommendation 3 as follows: “Given the nature and importance of the matters considered by the committee for this inquiry – primarily the right to freedom of speech, the right to be free from serious forms of racially discriminatory speech, and the importance of the rule of law – views varied among members of the committee as to how to balance these appropriately”.
The committee made 22 recommendations about changing processes. A sensible approach. However, this was not good enough for the government.
The temptation for a prime minister who is not doing well in the polls is to appeal to base instincts. Politicians all over the world have used marginalised groups as scapegoats. The appeal is instantaneous – attacking people who are “different”. An emphasis on the right to freedom of speech also has appeal as a basic right under our democracy. It works politically because it places the majority at odds with the minorities who suffer the discrimination.
The disturbing part is that Australia has come such a long way towards a tolerant and multi-cultural, multi-faith nation. The debate has once again reared its ugly head. Unfortunately, simply for political gain.
Even more disturbing is the level of impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been on the end of discrimination after discrimination since Australia was first colonised. At a time when Australia is beginning to make progress, an issue like this rekindles the fires of hatred and racism.
A recommendation for this type of change would never have come from anyone who had been on the receiving end of serious discrimination. Instead, the proposal comes from the most powerful, dominant group in our society, people who fear losing just a small amount of their privilege.
Turnbull is able make a huge fuss without any penalty. It must have been clear to him that he would not get the numbers in the Senate to change Section 18c.
The Nick Xenophon team, the Greens and Labor would never support this change. Instead, the Prime Minister has seen a political opportunity and has run with it. The political advantage of distracting the community from his proposed reduction in company tax while cutting the wages of the poor was just too great to ignore.