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Thursday, 26 June 2014
Page: 4142

Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (18:19): This parliament is the nation's premier debating forum. We, as elected representatives of the people, have the right—indeed, the duty—to come into this place and speak our minds. The remarks I make this evening are not made in my capacity as the chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. They are my own views and should not be taken as the views of that committee.

Our right to freedom of speech in this country is paramount. To be blunt, without freedom of speech, our other freedoms do not matter very much—because we cannot exercise them.

In 1660, the Royal Society of London, which is the UK's national academy of science, adopted as its motto 'Nullius in Verba'—which, translated, means 'no man's word shall be final'. That was reflective of the fact that scientists do not allow any statement to be immune from doubt. It is important always to ask questions, to test the theory—even if only to reinforce an existing belief, to affirm certain truths.

What is true for the scientific community is true for the Australian community more broadly. In Australia's vibrant liberal democracy, we hold that the only way to establish truth is through a process of public inquiry and debate, where opinions are weighed against evidence and conclusions are drawn. That is the very purpose of this parliament and most particularly of the Senate, as Australia's premier house of review. We test the claims made by proponents of legislation, and opposing viewpoints are aired. Through this process of public discussion and debate, we come to conclusions and resolve disagreements.

Sometimes that involves hearing others say things that we disagree with. Sometimes in the course of debate, both inside this building and outside it, we hear things that are upsetting or that we find offensive. However, if occasional offence is the price that has to be paid in order to live in a free society, then, unequivocally, I say it is a price worth paying.

It is not the role of parliamentarians to tell people what they can and cannot think, and that is the problem with Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act as it presently stands—because that is precisely what it does. By prohibiting the expression of political views that mainstream society finds objectionable, it essentially penalises people for holding those views at all. I know there are some senators in this place who have no problem with the notion of government telling its citizens what they can and cannot read, say or think—but I am not among them.

As all senators will be aware, earlier this year the government released an exposure draft for community consultation that proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act. The amendments are this government's effort to protect the right to free speech and protect our citizens from racial vilification. Indeed, one of the things I have found most extraordinary about this debate is the fact that, for all the noise we have heard from the government's critics and all that will come—and I will come to that in a moment—the critics have failed to acknowledge one simple but significant fact: these amendments actually create a protection against racial vilification that is not explicitly present in the Racial Discrimination Act in its current form.

This will be the first time any Commonwealth act will have included a specific prohibition against racial vilification. That is a point worth stressing, I think, because, for all the talk we hear from those opposite, it seemingly did not occur to them when they introduced the present form of section 18C in 1995, nor did it occur to them during the six years they were recently in government.

Like many senators and members in this place, I have had discussions with many community groups about these proposed amendments. I have held several meetings with representatives of various ethnic and cultural groups in Western Australia and have even appeared on Perth's Chinese community radio station to discuss this very issue. What struck me in these meetings when they began was that many were of the belief that what was being proposed was the abolition of all forms of protection against racial vilification. When I explained carefully and respectfully that this is not the case and set out what is actually proposed in the amendments, their concerns were greatly alleviated but, to be balanced, not necessarily extinguished.

To return to the point where I began for a moment, this parliament is the nation's premier debating forum. So when Labor and the Greens come into this place and rattle off talking points about how the government 'wants to make it easier for racists to speak', I really do start to wonder for how long we can keep that designation. I understand this issue arouses passions on both sides, but that does not mean the tone of the debate cannot be respectful. I have fundamental disagreements with those opposite on a number of issues, including this one, but I do not believe they are motivated by malice; I just disagree with them. So for the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Isaacs, to say the government is giving 'the green light to racism' and for senators from other parties to accuse this government of wanting to 'open the floodgates for racism and bigotry' is both inaccurate and unworthy of the office they hold.

Yet, as wrongheaded as they are and as offensive as I may find them, I would not wish to see such comments banned or criminalised because, as we have seen time and time again, the best way to defeat hate speech, or dishonest speech, is with more speech. To be frank, if I am in a room with a Holocaust denier, a racist or a homophobe, I want to know about it. I want to see them and hear their ill-informed view in full light. I want them to air their offensive view so I that I can counteract it with fact. I want them to have their say so they in turn can be exposed for what they are, even if it means I have to hear things that offend or even disgust me. Pushing offensive views underground simply means you have hidden them, not defeated them. You can educate hate and prejudice away but you cannot legislate it away any more than you can legislate love or harmony into existence.

The section of the act that the government is proposing to amend has only been in place since 1995. In the sweep of history, this is not a long time. I remember Australia in 1994 and, as I recall, it bore no resemblance to Selma, Alabama at the height of the civil rights protests in the 1960s. Why? Because the overwhelming majority of Australians, at their core, are fair, welcoming people.

I have been struck by the fact that many opponents of the government's position have been keen to stress that, if changes are made, we will see an explosion of violence, such as occurred in the Cronulla riots of 2005. If I may say so, that argument rather makes the government's point: the existence of section 18C in its present form did nothing to prevent the Cronulla riots. The law was in operation when they occurred and the riots still happened. It is clear to me that the best way to defeat ugly racial prejudice in our community is not to push it underground but to allow the community to make its own judgements based on what people say.

We saw an instance of this occurring this week when the Festival of Dangerous Ideas bizarrely promoted as part of its program at the Sydney Opera House a presentation by writer Uthman Badar, entitled 'Honour killings are morally justified'. The blurb for the event made it clear that the purpose of the event was to attack the 'secular white westerner' for condemning so-called honour killings in Islamic nations. Quite why anyone would think that was a good idea is beyond me, and I cannot imagine ticket sales would have been strong. Indeed, just hours after the event was advertised, the festival removed the session from its program. It did that after the community brought pressure to bear. No government intervention was required. No legislation was needed. As it should, the community acted as custodian of its own values and this event was cancelled.

This is the perfect encapsulation of what President Obama—hardly a right-wing ideologue himself—recently said when asked if he favoured laws limiting free speech. He said:

When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don't really have to do anything, you just let them talk.

My belief is a simple one. It is time to trust freedom and embrace free speech.