It is disappointing that the parliamentary committee charged with looking into one of Australia’s most insidious anti-free speech laws has failed to recommend its repeal. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights tabled its final report on Tuesday following its inquiry into freedom of speech in Australia. Specifically, the committee was asked to assess the operation of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The report lists a range of options for reform, including replacing the words “offend”, “insult”, and “humiliate” with “harass”. Nowhere near enough, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Section 18C is a dangerous provision. It makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” -another person on the basis of “race, colour, or national or ethnic origin”. Its effect is to restrict speech and regulate public debate.
Section 18C is the legal basis on which a complaint was launched against several students at the Queensland University of Technology and, ironically, it’s the law that destroyed any chance one young man, Calum Thwaites, had of becoming a teacher helping to educate disadvantaged indigenous kids.
The now infamous complaint against the “QUT three” was started after one of the young men – then a 20-year-old engineering student, Alex Wood – made this comment on an unofficial student Facebook page after being removed from a university computer room reserved for Aboriginals: “Just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation?”
For this piece of inoffensive Facebook banter the student, along with several others who commented on the original post, has been dragged through a legal saga lasting almost four years. Australians recognise this is unacceptable in a country such as ours. A whopping 95 per cent of Australians believe freedom of speech is either “important” or “very important”. This is according to Galaxy Research polling the Institute of Public Affairshad commissioned last year.
Given that we don’t expect many Australians to know the precise name of an obscure piece of legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s also telling that when asked about a change that would delete the words “offend” and “insult” from section 18C an extraordinary 48 per cent approve.
And yet, when a parliamentary inquiry is set up to look into this issue, the repeal of this un-Australian law is not even listed as an option for reform. I don’t know how anyone can hear the stories of Alex Wood and Calum Thwaites and not recommend the complete repeal of section 18C.
Even if the political class is slow to come around to the idea that our basic liberal democratic traditions are worth defending, there’s no doubt progress is being made. The case for repeal grows stronger every day.