Planned changes to race hate laws will embolden bigots, disempower the vulnerable and set back the cause of reconciliation and closing the gap, the indigenous leader most admired by Prime Minister Tony Abbott warns. Branding the changes a “cruel blow” and “a seriously backward step”, Noel Pearson has mounted a detailed and passionate defence of existing racial vilification laws and urged the government to leave them as they are.
Declaring that ordinary indigenous people still suffer much racism in their daily lives, Mr Pearson warns the changes will send the wrong message and make “lower-level racism lawful”, leading to more serious offensive behaviour.
In a submission on behalf of the Cape York Institute, Mr Pearson and the institute’s chief executive Fiona Jose describe the changes as “drastic and knee jerk” and assert they are already encouraging “a minority with bigoted views to amplify their prejudice”.
Attorney-General George Brandis has strongly defended the plan to repeal a section of the Racial Discrimination Act that makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the grounds of race or ethnicity. He maintains a new draft strikes a better balance between promoting free speech and proscribing racial vilification.
Mr Abbott promised the changes before last year’s election after the conservative columnist Andrew Bolt was prosecuted under section 18c of the act after casting aspersions on light-skinned Aborigines. Freedom of speech, Mr Abbott asserted, included the freedom to be obnoxious and objectionable.
But the changes are opposed by indigenous, Jewish and ethnic leaders and an increasing number of Coalition MPs, who say the changes represent a threat to social cohesion. Senator Brandis released the draft legislation late in March and invited public submissions until this week. He is expected to respond within weeks.
In their submission, Mr Pearson and Ms Jose argue the existing law has helped enforce social norms and reflects public expectations about the standard of public behaviour relating to race.
They also paint a disturbing picture of the state of race relations in Australia, asserting there remains a clear divide between the indigenous and non-indigenous population in Far North Queensland.
“As the chairman and CEO of CYI, as individuals we are not generally subject to racism – we hold privileged positions and are relatively protected. Nonetheless, we remember clearly the hurt and shame we experienced as children and growing up, such as when a family member was called a ‘gin’ while walking down the street and racial school-yard taunts,” they say in their submission.
“In one proud and strongly developing Cape community, the town’s non-indigenous families will not send their children to the high-performing primary school; they do not want their children mixing with Aboriginal kids,” they say.
“In this same community, non-indigenous people hold all the jobs. Indigenous people continue to be excluded from local job opportunities on the basis of commonly held racial stereotypes.”
The submission says the threshold for legal protection under the act is not too low and is entirely consistent with other Australian laws regulating the extremes of free speech.
“If the Australian government proceeds with the changes proposed, it is singling out racist behaviour as the only area in which the regulation of law must retreat on the basis of the need to expand the right to free speech – such an approach would be both capricious and manifestly unjust.”
They say the proposed amendments will severely, and unacceptably, weaken existing legal protections against racial vilification in public.
“The changes would appear to make holocaust denial acceptable. It would make the offensive Aboriginal memes on social media unchallengeable. Such drastic and knee-jerk changes to a well-settled law, one widely believed to be operating fairly and reasonably, cannot be justified.”
While they say low-level racist behaviour will escape legal scrutiny, their submission argues that even the high-level, serious, “almost-violent” racist behaviour will be likely to escape penalty because the proposed exemptions “basically exempt everything”.
“Indeed, it is difficult to imagine racist behaviour that would not be exempt,” they say.
“We must not leave vilified individuals without a practical legal avenue to assert their rights to be free of prejudice, racism and intolerance. We must not give legal sanction to the most serious forms of racial vilification, if expressed in the course of participating in a public discussion.
“Sadly, we have no doubt the proposed changes will embolden a minority with bigoted views to amplify their prejudice; indeed we are already observing this to be the case,” they say.
“The proposed changes will hurt indigenous Australians, and Australian society and multicultural relations in general. The gap will not close unless we continue to move away from outdated notions of race.”
Mr Abbott has regularly volunteered in a range of roles in Cape York communities and has described Mr Pearson as ”a true visionary and a very significant leader in contemporary Australia”.