Australia’s Freedom of Hate-Speech

by Dr Kerri O’Donnell

Prime Minister Turnbull wants to change our Racial Discrimination Act to increase freedom of speech (1).  I have never heard any Australian complain that we have a freedom of speech problem, so this makes no sense whatsoever.  Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce agrees, stating that our Racial Discrimination Act is not a problem (3).

But such changes would pave the way for far more insidious race-based discrimination, including government sanctioned (and initiated) laws, rules, actions and behaviors. For example, Section 51 (xxvi) of the Australian Constitution empowers parliament to make laws regarding “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

So what, exactly, is our government’s true agenda?

We are certainly not getting any straight answers so far.  ABC News reports the following exchange (1) during parliament question time:

Labor MP Anne Aly sought to clarify what the Prime Minister meant by increasing freedom of speech.  As someone who has been subjected to racism time and time again … please give me an answer:  What exactly does the Prime Minister want people to be able to say that they cannot say now?” she asked.

The Prime Minister deflected, saying Australians were entitled to speak freely.  “It is one of our fundamental rights and we are striking the balance at the right point between protection against racial vilification and protecting free speech,” he said.

Minutes later, Ms Aly posed her question to Mr Turnbull again…

“I can assure her that my Government — and I believe all Australians — are absolutely opposed to racism in any form,” Mr Turnbull responded.

This is absolutely not true.  Has Mr Turnbull never heard of fellow politician Pauline Hanson, and her unashamed political platform of white supremacy?  Did he not see her recent video promoting her #Pray4MuslimBan hashtag (2)?  Impossible.

Mr Turnbull has even made the classic move of attempting to stave off critics by turning the tables:  “The suggestion that those people who support a change to the wording of section 18C are somehow racist is a deeply offensive one (1).”

Nice try.  Nobody is going to fall for that.

Labour MP Linda Burney remarked (3) that “It is just astounding to me that those advocating any changes to 18C probably have experienced no discrimination in their life and have very little understanding of what discrimination means.”

But it gets worse.  PM Turnbull also wants to restrict the number of cases coming before the Human Rights Commission (3) by changing the reasonable person test to include the privileged white majority of Australians.  The executive director of Australia’s representative body of Jewish groups in Australia, Peter Wertheim, stated (4):

“It sounds superficially attractive but when you actually think about it, how does the average person in a pub or on the proverbial Bondi tram, put themselves in the shoes of a member of a minority community that they know nothing about?

“The current legal test is a much more appropriate one because it is gauged by the standard of a reasonable member of the group affected, that is somebody who is not overly sensitive, and not overly thick-skinned.”

I call upon all Australians to question the real implications of the proposed change to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.  Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said “For the Prime Minister to pretend that this is a strengthening of the law is simply nonsense (3).” Lowering the standard from offence/insult to harassment only strengthens the position of the racist offender.  It certainly does not make sense.  So what is the real agenda?

I call upon all Australians to question the real motivation for making such a proposed change.  The excuse given is to enable Freedom of Speech.  But we have that already, clarified under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (5), so the excuse is very weak.  Further, if the Racial Discrimination Act were tight enough to prevent public spread of hate-fuelled generalised comments, Ms Hanson would have been called to account for her racism in court years ago.  So should our country sacrifice all that is so great about our diversity because a small minority of racists want absolute freedom to put their racism in our faces?

No… the reason given is too weak to justify such an important change.  The gap between the weak justification and the intensity of Turnbull’s conviction that the change is necessary, signals that it is a precursor to something much nastier.

Let’s get all the facts straight, and consider all the implications, before we allow him to speak for us.


  1. ABC News, 21 March 2017, Section 18C: Political debate prompts Australians to share their experiences with racism, Australian Broadcasting Commission, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-21/australians-share-experiences-with-racism-after-18c-changes/8374372, accessed 24/3/17.
  2. Robinson, L., 23 March 2017, Muslim ban to solve terror problem, says Pauline Hanson, MSN.com, http://www.msn.com/en-au/news/australia/muslim-ban-to-solve-terror-problem-says-pauline-hanson/ar-BByC8Jp?li=AAgfYrC&ocid=mailsignout, accessed 24/3/17.
  3. Malone, U., 21 March 2017, Section 18C: Ethnic groups believe racial discrimination law changes send wrong message, ABC News, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-21/ethnic-communities-react-to-proposed-18c-changes/8374494, accessed 24/3/17.
  4. Australian Human Rights Commission, nd, Freedom of information, opinion and expression, https://www.humanrights.gov.au/freedom-information-opinion-and-expression, accessed 25/3/17.

Please watch the following video, and consider adding your name to the petition at that site.

https://www.getup.org.au/campaigns/racial-justice/racial-justice-campaign-18c-petition/hands-off-18c-sign-the-petition?t=1Pt1tpm

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