Discrimination based on a person's racial origin is quite simply unacceptable and wrong.
Australia is blessed to have a pluralistic society, one in which our country is constantly enriched by an ever-expanding cultural diversity. But as with any blessing, the cultural diversity that makes this country great is not something we should ever take for granted. As Frank Lowy warned in his inaugural Australian Multicultural Council Lecture in 2012 "we should resist the temptation to view Australia's multicultural experience through rose-coloured glasses." Self-delusion can be a dangerous trap and we must be ever vigilant in protecting the values that we consider define us as a nation.
As the daughter of Italian immigrant parents, I am proud of my migrant heritage and grateful for the opportunities this country has given me and my family. And while Australia can arguably claim to be the most successful multicultural nation in the world, we are far from perfect and regrettably not immune from the scourge of racism. It would be a tragedy if we were to ever permit one of our great strengths – our racial and cultural diversity – to become something that divides us.
It is for this reason and as someone who has been on the receiving end of racial hatred speech for most of my life that I am most concerned we take the time to get the balance right on the changes being proposed to the Race Discrimination Act.
This issue goes to the heart of what kind of society we have in Australia; whether we are a society that builds on the strength of our multicultural heritage, or whether we become a society that is characterised by intolerance and bigotry.
While we cannot legislate to stop people's thoughts, we can legislate to stop people's conduct. To this end, I am most pleased that the proposed Bill does include some significant changes, in particular the proposed amendments will be the first time that racial vilification has been specifically identified in Commonwealth legislation as an illegal activity and sends a clear message that it is unacceptable in the Australian community. This is a significant step forward.
In this regard, I do agree with the recent statement by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC that freedom of speech and the need to protect people from racial vilification are not inconsistent objectives. Laws that are designed to prohibit racial vilification should not be used as a vehicle to attack legitimate freedoms of speech.
The key to achieving this balance lies in determining what are "legitimate freedoms of speech"?
And it is here that I must admit to being particularly confused by what appears to be the contradictory exception contained in the proposed sub-section 4 to the Bill, which states that the new vilification provisions do not apply to:
" … words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter."
If the purpose of this Bill is to prohibit racial vilification while at the same time protecting legitimate freedoms of speech, I am at a loss to see how racial vilification of any kind, anywhere could ever be seen as a "legitimate freedom of speech".
The issue of free speech, however, has always been a highly emotive and contentious one, not just in this country, but all around the world. Consistently people embrace the concept of freedom of speech in terms of promoting their own freedom, but want to see the freedom of others, especially to the extent that they may be critical of them, curtailed.
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