Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act will be repealed. It won’t happen today, and it may not happen in this term of parliament.
But section 18C has become such an iconic issue for such a broad group of Australians that its continuing presence on the statute books is utterly unsustainable – and calls to ignore section 18C and the freedom of speech concerns it raises only act to further motivate those who passionately believe in the repeal of section 18C and the consequent restoration of the human right to freely express oneself.
Perhaps the most significant cohort within this broad cross section is the large number of individuals who make up the bedrock supporter base of centre-right political parties in Australia – those who vote for the Liberals, the Nationals, One Nation, the Liberal Democrats, Family First, and Australian Conservatives.
The views of those in the largest of these groups – the Coalition – could not be clearer. Polling conducted in September last year by Essential research found that 56 per cent of Liberal and National voters support a proposal to remove the words “offend” and “insult” from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The position of the membership of the Liberal Party is also unequivocal. At the most recent meeting of the party’s federal council a policy motion calling on the government to support the same proposal was unanimously supported by delegates from every division of the party.
This ought to come as no surprise. The membership of the Liberal Party in every division, except South Australia and NSW, has passed motions calling for section 18C to be amended.
In the context of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s various interventions on matters of policy and principle, it’s not too late for Malcolm Turnbull to reclaim the heart and soul of the Liberal Party. A decision by Turnbull to put a bill to the parliament to repeal section 18C would be very significant.
This week the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights tabled a report following its inquiry into freedom of speech in Australia. The committee was asked to address the question of whether Part IIA was operating well, or whether changes were required to fix the operation of the law.
To put it mildly, it’s difficult to make the argument that section 18C is operating as it ought to. Recent complaints under section 18C against newspaper cartoonists, young people engaging in Facebook banter, and churches erecting monuments to WWII sex slaves have sharpened the public’s focus on and understanding of this sinister law.
Despite such obvious flaws in the law, a range of views was put to the committee throughout the inquiry process.
Some organisations argued for no change at all, turning a blind eye to the injustices that section 18C has caused, choosing to ignore the destructive impact that this provision has had on the lives of vulnerable young people, and disregarding the liberal democratic traditions upon which Australia has been built.
But by far the largest common recommendation to the inquiry was the outright repeal of section 18C. These organisations and individuals, recognising the abhorrent effect of the law, submitted that Part IIA has to go. The Institute of Public Affairs was one such organisation.
Yet in handing down its report the committee failed to include repeal as one of the options for reform. This is a glaring omission.
And while the most substantial option for reform listed under recommendation 3 of the report (replacing the words “offend, insult and humiliate” with the word “harass”) is a step forward, the best way to describe that option is that it’s the only change included in the report that might improve the law.
Just in case I’ve been unclear – that’s not a strong endorsement. Every other option listed is to do literally nothing or next to nothing.
Treasurer Scott Morrison’s comment ahead of the release of the report this week that “this issue doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour. It doesn’t make housing more affordable or energy more affordable” is like a red rag to a bull for many who support change – likely including many of the constituents of Cook, the seat which Morrison represents.
The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, was similarly dismissive: “The point has been made that these are suggested solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist and we really don’t have a problem with 18C. The Australian public doesn’t really follow it very much, doesn’t really see it as an important on the agenda.”
The existential risk for the Coalition is that it is seen to be on the same side of the debate as Triggs, the ALP, and the Greens. And if that perception takes hold, where do you think Coalition voters will go?