The Federal Government’s determination to repeal Section 18C of the federal Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits racial abuse sets a troubling precedent in relation to other forms of discrimination in Australia. The specious argument put forward by Attorney General George Brandis, is that Section 18C inhibits freedom of speech and that people “people do have a right to be bigots”.
This is extraordinary and disturbing logic. It is bad enough that it weakens protections against racial vilification. The President of the Australian Human Rights Commission has expressed concerns that the draft legislation narrows the definition of what constitutes racial vilification and only recognises physical harm from abuse excluding emotional or psychological harm. At any level, it is highly problematic that these exclusions would be allowed. They are all the more significant given their role in causing harm from cyber-bullying. The AHRC President is right to be very concerned about these omissions.
The logic which informs the case for repeal of this legislation is also alarming in that it opens the door to weakening a wide range of other discrimination legislation. We might rightly ask what other ‘freedoms’ could potentially be accommodated under similar logic. Can some employers start to argue that they don’t want to employ women, older people, people with disabilities, or from certain racial backgrounds – because it is their right – their freedom – to employ who they want? Could some companies argue that they don’t want to provide disability access because it is too expensive or because they don’t want people with disabilities to use their services? After all they should have the ‘freedom’ to run their businesses as they wish. Could we see the whole fabric of equal opportunity provisions in legislation destroyed under the weight of renewed orientation towards ‘freedoms’?
All anti-discrimination legislation has been hard won, and the outcome of many decades, or even centuries of struggle by, and on behalf of, the least powerful groups within societies. The anti-discrimination laws recognise that all peoples have rights to be treated justly, decently and humanely regardless of whatever characteristic might differentiate them from the powerful and the majority however defined. Australia, and no other country, can afford to have any of its anti-discrimination legislation tampered with or weakened. They are an essential condiment for a cohesive, well functioning and productive society.