Attorney General George Brandis has issued an exposure
draft of proposed amendments to the RDA aimed at watering down the
existing protections against offensive speech or, as he puts it,
increasing the protection for freedom of speech. So what's the
Section 18C of the RDA has been lying there not doing much for
many years. It might have stayed that way, had the charming Andrew
Bolt not been found by the Federal Court to have infringed it by a
series of articles in which he suggested light - skinned Aborigines
were using their race to advance their careers. 18C prohibits
public acts which are reasonably likely to "offend, insult,
humiliate or intimidate" other people and which are done
because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin. There
is a very wide exception for acts done reasonably and in good faith
for purposes including fair comment on matters of public interest.
The Court found that Bolt had no such defence.
Anyway, that caused a big stink and now the government wants to
repeal s18C and replace it with a new offence. This will only
outlaw public acts that are reasonably likely to "vilify"
or "intimidate" another and which are done because of the
victim's race, colour, ethnicity or nationality.
It sounds not too unreasonable at first, and there is a
legitimate argument that offence or insult is a bit too much of a
restriction on free speech. Maybe vilify and intimidate are more
However, then you look at the detail. Both words are defined
narrowly, but the real devil is in the new exceptions. The
prohibition won't apply to anything spoken, broadcast,
published or communicated "in the course of participating in
the public discussion of any political, social, cultural,
religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter." This is
not qualified by reasonableness or good faith.
If you can think of anything anyone could say that won't be
caught by that exception, we'll be impressed. For example,
Holocaust denial would be completely fine, as would a statement
that some races are genetically superior to others. In that sense,
the exception is likely to preserve free (racist) speech more
effectively than any other laws in Australia, given that
there's no legal, personal right to free speech in this
We do not disclaim anything about this article. We're
quite proud of it really.
Politically, the sledgehammer obviousness of these amendments
will be a red rag to the ethnic lobby groups, who are already
gearing up to fight this on the beaches. It will be a major hot
potato for the Government. And there lies the irony – if
they'd just left it alone, s18C would continue to have offended
nobody apart from the few Bolt - like creatures who have nothing
better to do than assert their right to be obnoxious. It didn't
need to be an issue at all.
You can be sure, whatever the end result is, it won't look
like the present proposal. And we'll all have wasted a lot of
angst in the meantime.
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