One of the thorniest issues that has arisen in recent times is that of the amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act proposed by the Human Rights Commission which would:
"... make it unlawful for a person to publicly utter or publish words which, having regard to all the circumstances, are likely to result in hatred, intolerance or violence against a person or group of persons, distinguished by race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin."
While some may find this a laudable weapon against racists, it is yet another serious restriction upon free speech. What the amendment really strikes at is hurtful speech or wounding words. For example, if somebody publicly said, "Aborigines are just lazy drunks", it is likely that such a person could be prosecuted under the Act. Such a statement is a deplorable generalisation, no more applicable to Aboriginals than any other race or nationality. Why give the statement any more treatment than it deserves — simply to be ignored? Doubtless, many Aborigines may feel deeply hurt by such a comment but what mature person expects to pass through life without having wounding words spoken to him or her?
Any sensible person can see that the statement reflects more upon the person who made it than it does on Australian Aborigines. Why should migrants or members of ethnic groups be protected from the "slings and arrows" of normal human living? Indeed, many traits of the various cultures may well deserve severe criticism for the sake of social discipline and national cohesion. For example, the Aboriginal practice of organised infanticide or some of their customs relating to treatment of women, may legitimately be strongly criticised. Have not other cultures been criticised in the past for their sanitary habits which were a danger to public health? Members of these communities and groups may be deeply offended or hurt by such criticisms. But should the Commonwealth Parliament be legislating to forbid this simply because it arouses ill feeling?
There should be freedom to criticise white South African members of the Australian community who are unrepentant about apartheid policies maintained in their home country, irrespective of whether it causes intolerance of their community in Australia. It is ludicrous that such a condemnation of a racist policy would in fact be a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Laws already exist to adequately deal with any physical attacks which are made by one group or person against another (whether of racist origin or not) and to deal with incitement to violence. New laws which enable prosecution at a much earlier time are both unnecessary and exceedingly vague (and therefore potentially dangerous) in their operation. Indeed, the freedom to make such statements is an important safety valve which society needs in order to lessen the likelihood of resort to physical aggression. Tensions of a racial nature are bound to develop in all walks of life and should not be suppressed. A heated public debate does not necessarily lead to, and is far more desirable than, violence.
Those in Australia who are proponents of the fashionable term "Multiculturalism", mostly politicians, journalists and certain segments of academia (very few of whom are actually migrants), make strange bedfellows with those who promote the latest version of the Racial Discrimination Act. Indeed, it seems that most of these people wear two night-caps. They cannot be ignorant of what Italians feel about Greeks, Ukrainians about Russians, Chinese about Vietnamese, Turks about Armenians, Indians about Pakistanis, Nigerians about Ghanians, or Croats about Serbs — and vice versa.
Australia's attitude to all this should be that we welcome immigrants from any country, with the stern proviso that their national politics be firmly left at home. But the transformation of theory into reality may at times be more aptly described as metamorphosis, except that this time the butterfly can be uglier than the caterpillar. One simply cannot legislate to prevent people from holding what may be racist attitudes, especially migrants who could have fought against each other in the World Wars. The best we can do is to educate and attempt to change attitudes and let time heal these wounds as new generations of Australian-born children leave these views behind. Certainly legislating to make these thoughts inexpressible is only likely to harden people's feelings and prolong the whole process. Professor Lauchlan Chipman has this to say about the amendment (quoted above) proposed by the Human Rights Commission:
"It is not excessively dramatic to say that not since the Second World War have we seen proposals for limiting freedom of expression as restrictive as some that are currently under discussion. All of them derive from the progressives of the new class and more importantly all of them are put forward in the name of protection of the innocent from hurtful speech.
At first, the proposed amendment might seem unexceptionable; something that only racists or people insensitive to the hurt caused by racists would oppose. And indeed, as is so often the case, people who oppose this amendment in good faith will be called racists. (Regular readers of Quadrant will recall that the present Commonwealth Attorney General was, as Shadow Attorney, not averse to using parliamentary privilege to describe Quadrant contributors who criticised multiculturalism as "sophisticated" and "more dangerous" racists. Late last year the Evans speech was cited at a multiculturalism conference in Adelaide as proof that this writer "hated ethnics").
One thing that is particularly worrying about the Human Rights Commission's proposed amendment is that it has deliberately chosen (it considered the alternative and rejected it) to construct the offence in terms of objective consequence rather than intended effect, in a way that is modelled on the defamation laws of most States. Thus if a newspaper were to report, in good faith, claims about the comparative alcoholism rates among Aborigines and non-Aboriginal Australians... and as a result a minority of the readers were reinforced in an intolerant attitude to Aborigines, an offence may have been committed. Now we will be hastily reassured that the proposed legislative amendment is not intended to extend to "bona fide public discussions", scientific reports, or works of art (the latter exemption no doubt intended to save Wagner and Irish jokes).
It is difficult to imagine anything more ludicrous than the Human Rights Commission making judgements about whether something is a work of art, whether a public discussion is bona fide, or whether a report is genuinely scientific. It is not just ludicrous. It reeks of all of the classical dangers of censorship. Moreover it is doubtful if it will achieve anything in relation to its declared and legitimate objective of diminishing racial tensions. (Comparative English legislation actually correlates with a rise in overt racist activity, and in the proportion of racist smut which is anonymous.) It may succeed in having Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf banned in Australia, unless it qualifies as a work of art. "(Quadrant, May (1984) p 24).
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