In the debate around the Abbott Government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), one thorny question has constantly thwarted the efforts of impassioned freedom of speech fighters to win the argument.
At a recent talk on racism in Sydney, co-chair of the National Congress for Australia’s First Peoples and long-time editor of the Koori Mail, Kirstie Parker put the question to one of the highest profile supporters of the government’s changes, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) policy director turned Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson.
“What is not being said now, that you think should be?” Parker demanded of Wilson.
It’s a question that drills down into the strongest element of the argument against changes designed to weaken the current RDA.
As Wilson is forced to concede, it’s difficult to imagine that speech currently being suppressed by the RDA (if there is any) would improve the quality of public debate in Australia, should it suddenly be uttered.
What would we gain by allowing people to offend others on the basis of race? The most effective response from Wilson and co is that we’re better off having that bigotry out in the open so that we can’t ignore it, an argument that seems to overestimate the power of civil society and the will of Australians generally to fight racism.
There’s an insinuation to Parker’s rhetorical jab that has been put directly or discreetly by many opposed to Attorney General George Brandis’ proposed changes to the Act: those who back the reforms are the allies of the bigots – and that’s why Brandis’ “people have the right to be bigots” line has become the most memorable and damaging of the stoush.
And it also may be the reason that the Attorney-General – whose seemingly unprovoked foray recently into Middle Eastern politics is causing the government a significant, international headache – chose to make one particularly ironic decision in regards to the public scrutiny of his draft changes to the RDA.
Aside from general concern inspired by the exposure draft released by the Attorney-General’s Department – which would see wide exemptions inserted into the Act and remove a prohibition on speech which offends, insults or humiliates on the basis of race – Brandis is also now drawing criticism for refusing to publish any of the 5557 submissions that his Department received in response to the document.
Who made these submissions, and what there content was, is largely a mystery. In order to gauge public reaction to the draft, it’s currently necessary to guess which groups or individuals have made submissions, then search their websites one by one and see if they have put them online.
Groups opposing the changes have accused the government of an enormous double-standard, and are now calling for a Senate inquiry to follow any legislation introduced to the Parliament.
Amnesty International spent last week in Canberra lobbying the government to, among other things, open the submissions to the public. As with other groups lobbying against the exposure draft, you get the impression they are confident a survey of submissions would show broad community opposition to the changes.
“It would be very interesting to see the community concerns that this draft bill has brought about, as well as who opposes it and who is for it,” an Amnesty spokesperson told New Matilda.
“We don’t actually know of many organisations who are for it. We don’t know the number and that’s why the Attorney-General needs to make it public.”
Amnesty’s request has been echoed by advocacy group GetUp, which ran a campaign encouraging members to make submissions.
GetUp communications director Matt Levinson told New Matilda that publishing submissions should be part of the consultation process.
“We're concerned the Attorney-General’s Department will be able to claim their consultation process was thorough and effective, while continuing with their agenda regardless,” Levinson said.
Brandis is so far unmoved by these appeals. In a Senate Estimates hearing last month, he was asked by Greens Senator Penny Wright to disclose when the submissions would be made accessible to the public.
“They will not be published,” he informed Wright, “because [the submissions]were invited on the explicit terms that they were submissions to government that would be treated in confidence,” Brandis said.
Not content, Wright pushed Brandis on the number of submissions for and against the changes, an effort Brandis fudged through vague half-answers, asserting that “many” submissions were for and “many” were against.
“I think you misunderstand the exercise. This was not an opinion poll,” he told Wright.
While running various defences, Brandis tried to put the matter to bed by insisting the decision was out of the government’s hands, and that those making submissions had been assured their words of counsel would be kept private.
“It’s not for me, as the recipient of submissions invited on the basis that they would be treated by the government in confidence, to breach that confidence by publishing them,” Brandis concluded.
Wright didn’t buy it.
“I understand from stakeholders that when the submissions were called for there was an understanding that if they explicitly consented to publication then indeed they would be published,” she said.
The Attorney-General Department’s website appears to back Wright up on this, with a note on the submissions page implying that once consent was given, submissions could be made public.
A spokesperson for Brandis referred New Matilda to the Attorney-General’s estimates comments. When the apparent contradiction between those comments and the disclaimer on the Attorney-General’s website was pointed out, the spokesperson said he did not have any further comments to add.
“It seems somewhat ironic that this is the response to issues around free speech, and the government isn’t prepared to make the views of Australians known to each other,” Wright told New Matilda.
It’s clear that plenty of organisations have given consent for their work to be published, with organisations including GetUp, the IPA, Amnesty, Together Now, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Ethnic Communities Council of Australia, the Australian Human Right Commissions, Vinnies, the Anti Discrimination Commission Queensland, Redfern Legal Centre, the ACTU and the NSW Bar Association all publishing their submissions independently.
Looking over the list, and considering the broader reaction to Brandis’ changes, it seems likely the Attorney-General was at least in-part inspired not to publish the submissions so as to avoid the awkward admission that the majority of Australians are opposed to the new laws.
But if you look at one party who made a submission in favour of changes, it seems likely it’s not just the words of his enemies Brandis wants to hide… it’s the words of his friends.
“The trap set for the multiculturalists in Australia by Jewish interests, who designed Section 18C, is that the sole aim of this section has always been to legally protect… the Holocaust-Shoah narrative.”
Those are the words of holocaust denier Frederick Toben. According to a Fairfax media report, they were part of Toben’s submission to the Department, which “congratulated the government on its amendments”.
In keeping submissions private, the Attorney-General has supressed the arguments, beliefs and ravings of Toben, and any others who might have made similarly offensive submissions. And that may be the point of opting out of opening the process to greater public scrutiny – even in a nation that struggles with issues of race, there’s really no political capital to be gained by airing the thoughts of your bigoted allies.
Though it’s not unusual for a review such as the one being run by the Attorney-General’s Department to keep submissions out of public view, it hardly seems unreasonable to ask why this particular exercise did not have a higher benchmark of transparency applied.
The Coalition’s push to change 18c has already shown us much about race in Australia in 2014, and the party’s clumsy approach to its intersection with politics.
By picking through some of the murkier submissions, hidden between the polished input of the IPA and the Human Rights Commission, we might have seen some of the speech that Kirstie Parker was referring to when she posed her question to Tim Wilson, and gleaned a little of how an increase to free speech in Australia might sound.
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