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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights
Freedom of speech in Australia

JULIAN-ARMITAGE, Mrs Angela, National President, Migration Institute of Australia


CHAIR: I advise witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. I remind both committee members and witnesses that significant responsibilities accompany the use of this privilege, and encourage participants to exercise it with these in mind. I invite witnesses to give evidence that is relevant to the committee's terms of reference without unnecessarily commenting adversely on any particular person. I remind committee members that privilege resolution 1 outlines the procedures to be observed by committee members for the protection of witnesses, including that witnesses who are assisting committees should be treated equitably. As chair, I am required to ensure that the questions are put and answered in an orderly manner and to ensure that proceedings are conducted with courtesy on all sides.

Welcome. I invite you to make a brief opening statement, after which members of the committee may ask some questions.

Mrs Julian-Armitage : The Migration Institute of Australia is the national professional association that represents registered migration agents and lawyers. Our prime focus is representing our members, who in turn represent individuals who seek to enter Australia on either a temporary or a permanent basis. While there is some intersection between the clients of MIA members, in the context of the Migration Act 1958 and the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, it is somewhat distant. It is within this context that the MIA presents its comments to this inquiry. Australia is the world's most successful multicultural society, with its prime interest in promoting and protecting social cohesion within this country. In relative terms, Australia is considered a safe and politically inclusive country. It is for this reason that many individuals seek to visit and migrate to Australia. We have a long history of welcoming migrants, and these migrants have in turn contributed to the richness of our lives in this country. The issue under consideration is whether sections 18C and D of the Racial Discriminate Act should be amended. It is highly complex and it encompasses several areas of the law. As this issue is incidental to migration law, the MIA's input in this inquiry is slightly more philosophical than legal. The MIA does note that no legislation is perfect and that some stakeholders consider that the language of 18C is too broad and interferes with freedom of speech, while many others consider that it strikes the right balance between freedom of speech and the right to be free from vilification and discrimination. Only a small number of legal cases have progressed to completion in the more than 20 years since the act was introduced. Hence it is a difficult area.

Mr PERRETT: I was wondering whether you could make comment on the general awareness of section 18C and people's right to make a claim with the Australian Human Rights Commission if they have been racially abused.

Mrs Julian-Armitage : I think recently, in particular, it has come to the forefront of people's minds, given a couple of recent cases. Here in Queensland, we have recently had the case of the university students at QUT. But in relation to its overall knowledge amongst the population, I would have to say that it is not as much at the forefront of people's minds, particularly migrants, as perhaps the Human Rights Commission would like.

Mr PERRETT: What message do you think would be conveyed to the community if section 18C was amended or repealed? We have had it put to us by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law that the rolling back of a law sends a message, as does the passage of one. It can send the message that it is acceptable to offend and insult another person on the basis of race.

Mrs Julian-Armitage : I have some huge problems, both personally and as the national president of the MIA, with that comment. I think vilification of another person on the basis of race is abhorrent and should never be contemplated by government. We have come a very long way in this country to protect people from this sort of vilification. The problems that I have with the legislative provisions themselves are that in my view—and I am practising barrister as well as national president—the wording is slightly fluffy, not as distinct as it should be. And whilst the courts are interpreting it far narrower than the actual reading of the legislative provision itself, I think if any changes are to occur those changes should, in fact, be to make it clearer that it is not a situation of where somebody is going to be slighted but a very serious type of vilification which is required, pursuant to the act.

Mr PERRETT: As per Justice Kiefel's interpretation?

Mrs Julian-Armitage : Correct, as per Justice Kiefel's findings.

CHAIR: My final question relates to Australia's international human rights obligations. You may be aware that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sets the threshold at vilification and incitement to racial hatred, in order to be compatible with the international human rights obligations. Are you able to express a view on that?

Mrs Julian-Armitage : Our view, the institute's view, is that anything that can make Australia a more cohesive and more successful than it already is multicultural society—it is unquestionable that we are the most successful multicultural society in the world. It is something that is in the good of the country and should not be fettered in any way whatsoever. The only concern [inaudible] Julian Lesser in that I think the Human Rights Commission needs to have more powers to be able to dismiss vexatious and unmeritorious matters quicker than it has been. There is even the prospect of seeking security for costs where people insist on pursuing. But in terms of watering down any of these preventative measures from vilification, I certainly am well against it, as is the organisation.

CHAIR: There being no further questions, thank you for giving evidence to the committee today.

Proceedings suspended from 11:51 to 12: 39