It was a Thursday and it was supposed to be the last sitting day for the Senate in March but the Government extended the sitting hours well into the night to deal with changes to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). It was for a minor change, to replace the words “insult, offend and humiliate” with the term “harass” but the consequences could of had a devastating impact on minorities, communities and individuals from a migrant background. Replacing these words would have sent a message that it’s OK to humiliate and insult someone based on their race.
The Senate debate was quick to come to a realisation that the Government didn’t have the numbers, the discussion however went on for three hours. Labor, the Greens the Nick Xenophon Team and the Tasmanian independent Jacquie Lambie voted together to defeat the proposed legislative change.
It was a clear win for multicultural Australia and for all those at the front line that experience racism.
It’s the second time that a governing Liberal party has proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Fortunately, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott dumped the proposed amendments in 2014. The changes at the time were championed by Attorney General George Brandis, but it was Abbott that made a leadership decision and put a halt to the process before it got to Parliament, stating he wanted ‘unity’ and wanted communities ‘to be our friend not our critic’.
So what happened this time? Mr Turnbull had repeatedly told Australians he had no plans to change 18C yet here it was, a Turnbull government proposing changes to 18C and pandering to Conservative liberals. Given no choice by the Conservative right, this may have been Mr Turnbulls way of clearing the air, knowing that it would not get through the Senate and then we can ‘move on’, as he has now stated.
Ultimately the push came from radical Senators and conservative elements within the Liberal party. The “obsessives’, as they have been termed, want to change the RDA but are more about fighting political correctness and supporting mainstream media to express division, bigotry and veiled racism.
For many the proposed changes come as a direct attack on multiculturalism and on vulnerable monitories. The Liberal party will continue to get it wrong if they undermine multiculturalism because it’s endemic; it’s in every corner of Australian society including the Liberal and National party. Ultimately taking a stand against multiculturalism will alienate the ethnic voters.
The Liberal Party needs to learn the lesson of ‘anti-establishment’ voters. Ethnic voters look for stability and will vote for the establishment but not if its means promoting racial hatred and bigotry. This may be one of the factors at play in Malcom Turnbull’s drop in the polls as preferred Prime Minister.
We have to be concerned and hope that the Liberal party has learnt a lesson now after two attempts by conservative elements within their party to overturn this longstanding and successful legislation.
This should be a clear message that we not only live in a multicultural society but that the ethnic sector has a strong voice and influence. Both times there have been a substantial amount of submissions sent to government opposing the changes, together with significant media coverage and a very popular sentiment to maintain the status quo.
The Racial Discrimination Act, as it stands, strikes a fair balance and provides protection for vulnerable communities and individuals against racial attacks while defending the right to freedom of speech.
There are existing laws in the RDA that have broad exemptions for genuine fair comment and anything said “reasonably and in good faith” and in the pursuit of genuine public interest is already allowed. This is why the media can say as much as it does already – it just has to be honest about it.
Unfortunately though the ‘obsessives’; Corey Bernardi, Derryn Hinch, David Leyonhjelm and Pauline Hanson’s quartet and Conservative Liberals will not leave the RDA alone. Statements have already been made that they will to continue their efforts to water down the RDA.
The public doesn’t have an appetite for changing the RDA and it’s not the issue in the electorates; it’s only the ‘obsessives’ and some right-wing media that keep stoking the dying embers. Hopefully there is enough common sense in the Liberal Party to now ‘move on’ because all this is doing is creating marginalisation and controversy.