Almost all major churches, the Jewish lobby, and all official bodies representing nonwhites in Australia, have ganged up to halt a proposed reform of existing race laws to remove the words “insult, offend, and humiliate” and replace them with the word “harassment.”
The seemingly minor amendment to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 has been widely interpreted by the groups as “legalizing” the ability to issue insults, while the government has insisted that it is a strengthening of the law and of the right to free speech.
Currently, the law defines “offensive behavior because of race, color or national or ethnic origin” as unlawful if the “act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.”
The government seeks to delete the words “insult,” “offend,” and “humiliate” and replace them with the term “harass.”
Freedom of speech advocates in Australia have campaigned for years to make the change, based on the fact that the Jewish lobby in particular has managed to get books, websites, and writers banned in that country based on subjective definitions of the word “insult.”
However, a formal alliance of nonwhite, Jewish, and church groups, united under the banner of the “Coalition to Advance Multiculturalism” (CAM), released a letter condemning the changes as “utterly shameful and at odds with the principles of multicultural Australia.”
“We will oppose this latest attempt to amend Section 18C with all the energy and resources at our collective disposal,” the CAM statement said.
According to a statement on the website of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV), the “Coalition to Advance Multiculturalism” consists of the following organizations: Afro-Australian Student Organization; Australasian Union of Jewish Students; Buddhist Council of Victoria; the Hindu Council of Australia; the Incubate Foundation; Islamic Council of Victoria; Jewish Community Council of Victoria; Muslim Legal Network; The Online Hate Prevention Institute; Pax Christi Australia; Sikh Interfaith Council; UNESCO Chair in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations; Uniting Church of Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania; Victorian Council of Churches; and the Vietnamese Community in Australia (Vic).
Peter Wertheim, director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said that if “implemented, these proposals will weaken, perhaps emasculate, existing legal protections against racist hate speech.”
“They will give a free pass to ugly and damaging forms of racial vilification which do not satisfy the stringent legal criteria of harassment and intimidation. The publication of virtually any derogatory generalization about an entire community group would, of itself, be permissible,” Wertheim said.
The President of the Chinese Australian Forum, Kenrick Cheah announced that they would use the growing numbers of Chinese voters in Australia’s cities to punish the government if the changes went ahead.
“Look at the demographics of Sydney, for example,” Cheah said. “There are a lot of seats out there which have very vocal multicultural communities.
“I don’t think any multicultural communities have stood up for the changes—especially in marginal seats like Reid, Banks etc. where, it is quite important that either side harness the multicultural vote—I can’t see how this is going to help anyone get votes from those communities.”
Randa Kattan, the Arab Council Australia CEO, said the government was sending a “dangerous signal that it is OK to insult somebody” to a community “that faces the brunt of racism almost on a daily basis, if not on a minute-by-minute basis.”
The ruling Liberal Party is itself divided over the proposed changes, and the law faces hurdles in getting passed by the Senate, where there is enough opposition to deny the government a majority.
The executive director of the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, warned that the definition of harassment was also “mired in uncertainty,” and accurately remarked that “only the full repeal of section 18C would preserve free speech.”