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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1434

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (13:00): This summer, Australia meets the old enemy on cricket pitches across the country. At stake is the Ashes urn and Australia's sporting pride after a crushing tour of England earlier this year, and so far Australia is making quite a comeback. There is no love lost between players once they walk out of the pavilion. While we have moved on from bodyline, the verbal barrage between players is as fierce as it has ever been. Test cricket is a competitive game, and a trial of mental as much as physical endurance. While we might worry about that attitude being emulated by our children, both sides maintain the view that there are no points for hurt feelings in professional cricket.

Cricket is like other sports in that respect. In the arena of aggressive, high-stakes competition, there are no rules against being offended, except in one important respect. Every professional sport beloved by Australians has serious and strict prohibitions on racially motivated comments and conduct. Racial equality is at the heart of genuine sporting contests. Only when all people are welcomed to the game can we have a genuinely international contest. And only when sport is played without prejudice can we witness a genuine challenge of human endeavour.

Equality makes victory so much sweeter and defeat all the more galvanising. That is why the laws of cricket make no distinction between people of different race, instead assuming that everybody has the right to fully participate. Opponents meet on a level playing field, with mutual respect and a shared determination to prevail. When treated as a place of mutual respect, cricket matches have demonstrated their capacity to break down barriers and bring nations together. Like other international sports, cricket's competitors and supporters come from an array of nations and a diverse range of backgrounds. Spectators lining grandstands and hills at ovals around Australia have been able to enjoy the spectacle of friendly rivalry without descending into rivalry themselves. But that picture of harmony relies on a conscious effort on the part of sporting organisations to prevent prejudice creeping into the game.

Repeated instances of racial vilification, in Australia and across the world, have led to the International Cricket Council, the ICC, introducing one of the toughest anti-racism and diversity codes in world sport. Under the ICC code, members, like Australia, are required to impose punishments on spectators found to have participated in offensive conduct on the basis of race, from ejection from the venue to a life ban. The point of the ICC's strict rules against racially motivated abuse is not that the cricket pitch is home to sensitive souls. It is that racial abuse is a different category of thing entirely and something that undermines the very point of cricket in the first place: to join people together in a spirit of friendly competition.

The ICC's rules are very similar to a law introduced in Australia in 1994. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which was introduced under the Keating government and applied consistently throughout the Howard government, prohibits conduct that is likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin. This section, which has been in place for almost 20 years now, was introduced to give people some way to deal with words and actions that attacked them or their fellow citizens simply for being of a particular ethnic background. The law recognises that a community as rich and diverse as Australia's only functions properly when people act in a respectful and responsible way towards each other.

But, like the ICC's code, it is not designed just to stop people from getting their feelings hurt. In fact, the courts have always set the bar for breaches of this law much higher than somebody simply being offended. The types of attacks this law defends against are the ones that have the potential to do serious harm to people or to undermine the harmony of our multicultural community.

The kinds of extreme hate speech that Section 18C has covered, for example, include claims that Jewish people exaggerated the scale of the Holocaust for their own benefit or an overtly racist attack on an Indigenous Australian in front of her family. Such racially motivated attacks are too often precursors to racially motivated violence. In other instances, a lifetime of such abuse without any means of redress can cause terrible trauma. Either way, these are examples that reasonable Australians understand have no place in a community based on equality.

But the federal Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, has pledged during the election that he would amend or repeal Section 18C because, in his view, it violates freedom of speech. Senator Brandis believes that racially motivated attacks are part and parcel of the 'intellectual freedom' Australians expect, despite there already being broad exemptions under 18D from current laws where people make infringing statements in good faith.

The case Senator Brandis most often refers to when promoting his changes is that of columnist Andrew Bolt. In that case, Mr Bolt's comments were found to not have been made in good faith—particularly that he knowingly published errors of fact and distortions of the truth. If he had a sincere intellectual point to make, it would have avoided infringement of 18C. Senator Brandis has chosen to listen to the man on the losing end of a Federal Court case rather than to be guided by the ethnic communities who are affected by laws on racial discrimination every day. If the Attorney-General were to engage in genuine community consultation, he would realise how important these laws are to communities.

In recent weeks, 10 peak ethnic organisations have expressed their alarm over the threatened changes that are being proposed by this government. They believe that giving licence to racial vilification is un-Australian and that this would be a step backwards for Australia. Organisations have continued to speak out, and there have been a number of them, with the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, the Australian Hellenic Council, the Arab Council Australia, the Vietnamese community, the Chinese Australian Forum and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry providing a media release on 21 November titled 'Racism is not free speech. It says:

The proposal to change the RDA is being put forward in the name of free speech. Vilifying entire groups of people because of their race has nothing to do with free speech. To be vilified because of one’s ethnicity or national origin hurts one’s ability to participate fully in society.

Since that statement was made, many other voices around the country have also spoken out. In fact, in Victoria on 5 December, a similar media statement was released, supported by 25 different organisations in Victoria. These included the Asian Australian Alliance, the African Think Tank, the Council of Christians and Jews, the Chinese Community Association Victoria, the Islamic Council of Victoria, the Hindu Foundation in Victoria, the UNESCO Chair in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations-Asia Pacific at Monash University, the Victorian Council of Churches, the Uniting Church in Australia's synod of Victoria and Tasmania, and so on and so on. Many organisations, all speaking out; individuals also speaking out about these threats that are being put forward if 18C were to be amended or repealed.

But an even more significant step occurred yesterday when a broad coalition of organisations sent a joint open letter to the Attorney-General. There were more than 150 organisations from all around Australia highlighting the critical role that the Racial Discrimination Act has long played in combating racial hatred and protecting individuals and groups against discrimination and hate speech. Now 150 organisations: that sends a fairly strong message to the Attorney about how so much of civil society feels about this important issue. But it was a broad range of organisations, and I want to highlight some of them. They were not just ethnic communities; they included the Australian Lawyers Alliance, the ACTU, the YWCA, the Australian Council of Social Service, Amnesty International Australia, Oxfam Australia, the Lowitja Institute and the Refugee Council of Australia. This sends an incredibly strong message to this government about their position on any changes to our Racial Discrimination Act.

I would like to quote the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Mr Hugh de Kretser, who said:

Racial hatred causes serious harm to individuals and the current law balances freedom of speech with freedom from vilification.

Similarly, Rodney Dillon from Amnesty International Australia said:

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience racism and hate speech on a regular basis … Strong legal protections send a clear message that racist hate speech is not acceptable and that people who experience such treatment will be protected by the law.

A similar message from Joe Caputo, Chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia:

The repeal of section 18C would be incredibly damaging, sending a signal that hate speech is acceptable and allowing racism to get a foothold in our proudly multicultural nation …

This quote is from AFL footballer Adam Goodes:

Whether you are on a sporting field or walking down the street, racism and racial vilification have no role to play in our community. It is unacceptable and it causes harm to that person and their family, it cuts to the core of who that person is …

And finally, this from Dr Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service:

Several high profile incidents in recent years demonstrate that we still have a long way to go as a community and that laws protecting people from racial vilification are necessary …

There lie a number of examples of civil society, of individuals, speaking strongly, speaking to the Attorney in an open letter sent to him yesterday about how they regard any changes to these laws that protect against racial vilification.

These organisations and individuals should use those rules to defend what is right and to show that hatred and hate speech is wrong. We should not accept the excuse that racially motivated vilification is an ordinary and acceptable part of living in a democracy. Behaviour that is not acceptable in sport certainly should not be acceptable in everyday life. And just as sport does not work when we let racist language invade the pitch, Australian multiculturalism does not work when we let racism and hatred pry our communities apart. If we are to build a society where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds feel able to fully participate, and where people can play and work and live side by side, then we also need a code of conduct against racially motivated abuse. We need to defend 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.