We Almost Had The Right To Be Bigots, And Then The Muslims Ruined Everything


Everything was in place for the party. The venue was booked and the guests had secured their tickets. The caterers planned an elegant spread to help the revellers keep their stamina up and bar staff were on hand, lest the mood for celebration move beyond tea and coffee.

And then the bloody Muslims went and ruined it for everyone.

That’s the message the Coalition have been pushing since abandoning their efforts to water down the Racial Discrimination Act, a decision which brought a merciful end to the many-fisted beat-down they’ve endured on the issue.

Just two days before the Attorney-General was to deliver what promised to be a romping address at the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Free Speech Symposium, overseen by ‘Freedom Commissioner’ Tim Wilson, the government dramatically abandoned its crusade, which would have made it legal to offend, insult and humiliate on the basis of race, and would have grafted a wide range of exemptions onto the Act.

Wilson’s much anticipated jamboree had suddenly become a wake.

Instead of cheering the troops forward into battle, Wilson and the anti-18c brigade were forced to dissect their cause’s fast decaying corpse – where had things gone so wrong? Who was to blame? Why had the government abandoned freedom?

Having pulled out of his keynote address, their former champion was nowhere to respond, leaving shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to triumphantly mock his absent and defeated counterpart.

Among the day’s ruminations, one symposium speaker suggested a particular group stood to benefit from the amendment’s disintegration.

Professor Augusto Zimmermann, a senior lecturer at Murdoch University, said maintaining the RDA would advantage Islamic extremists by preventing average citizens from criticising and drawing attention to the expression of their radical views.

Changes to the Act had been vigorously opposed by a range of community and legal groups, not least of which were Aboriginal and Jewish organisations, but Zimmermann wasn’t the only one who seemed to think Muslims would gain uniquely from the curtailments of speech it allows.

In his press conference announcing the amendment’s demise – as well a disturbing new plan to collect massive amounts of meta-data and reverse the presumption of innocence for people returning from areas of significant terrorist activity – Prime Minister Tony Abbott signalled the 18c changes had been sacrificed in the name of national unity.

“When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of Team Australia and I have to say that the government’s proposals to change section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect. I don’t want to do anything to put our national unity at risk at this time, so those proposals are now off the table,” he said.

But who was threatening national unity? In a veiled hint, Abbott named just one group in his comments: Muslims.

If this was ambiguous, subsequent leaks made the government’s argument clear. In an effort to appease the Muslim community, and bring them back into the ever-shrinking tent, Cabinet rolled Brandis with the secondary aim of smoothing passage for new anti-terrorism legislation.

The message was framed as an attempt to reach out to the Muslim communities who are concerned they are being targeted by the new laws.

In reality, it also functioned as a barely disguised dog whistle to loyal Coalition backers who were disappointed this pet project, their special election promise, had been abandoned.

It was a shrewd challenge: we fought the good fight but in the end we had to appease the immigrants. Who are you going to blame, us or them?

While the IPA was having none of it, slamming the government in a full-page advertisement in the Australian newspaper (seems odd they bothered to pay for it when usually the Australian provides a similar service for free) – Andrew Bolt fell head over heals.

“Pardon?” he scoffed in The Australian. “We must placate Muslim Australians by restricting our freedom to say something critical of their culture, for instance, extremists being so prone to jihad?”

There were some tough words for Abbott and the Coalition, to be sure, but a large portion of the blame had been deflected.

Having thrown them overboard, the Coalition wanted to at least leave commentators like Bolt something to cling to, some enemy to blame for their failure. And what easier target than a group already so deeply despised by Bolt and his ilk?

In reality, the proposition that the changes were dropped because of concerns for those Australians who choose to practice Islam is absurd.

The Government received over 5,000 submissions in response to its RDA exposure draft but has done its best to prevent the public accessing them and even blocked an FoI request calling for their release.

In Senate Estimates, Brandis repeatedly dodged questions about how many submissions had been in favour or opposed to the changes.

Given the public reaction, and the nature of those submission which ended up being published elsewhere, we have good reason to think the vast majority were opposed to the changes. One government source was quoted as conceding as much this week.

In light of this it’s important to be clear that the proposed legislation did not falter because of the need to appease a hostile internal population of Muslims, or indeed any one minority group. It was, in fact, jettisoned by an Australian public whose mood ranged from disinterest to active hostility.

Much has been made of the poor selling of the proposed changes, and the “right to be bigots” moment has been described as key. While moments such as this did not help, the quest to change the Act was undermined more generally by the fact it offered so little gain while threatening so much harm.

On one hand, minority groups were terrified. They felt betrayed by the government and feared a surge of sanctioned racism. On the other, privileged white Australians had little reason to think the amendment would improve their lives, or their freedoms, in any real way.

Perhaps there are now a significant number of Australians quietly brooding that their right to be a bigot will remain suppressed. But if that is the case, their anger was never sufficient to draw them to the barricades.

In this vacuum, the fury of Bolt, a smattering of conservative think tanks, and the Murdoch press was all in vain. Even they could not goad the public into action.

All the while, friends of the Coalition were jumping ship. Warren Mundine spoke out. Even after Brandis and Bishop made outrageous statements defending Israel – including the suggestion that East Jerusalem was “disputed” territory and settlements in the West Bank were not illegal – major Jewish groups continued to publicly chastise their party for its 18c stance.

When the Coalition killed the reforms on Tuesday, it did so out of pure self-interest.

A day later, Tim Wilson did his best to keep his Symposium up-beat, and was in light enough spirits to joke that his efforts to move the free speech debate away from the 18c question had now been achieved.

In fairness to the Commissioner, his party wasn’t ruined, and none seemed too glum about their political misadventures.

And this was precisely the problem for those advocating the weakening of 18c. They didn’t have enough skin in the game.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.