The Australian Human Rights Commission remains of the view that section 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act, as interpreted by the Courts, strike an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and protection from racial vilification.
The Commission will engage with the Government and Parliament on progressing legislative reforms that can further strengthen and improve the complaint handling process, while ensuring access to justice.
We have been in discussions with the Attorney-General about proposed changes to the Commission’s complaint handling processes. However, we have not seen the draft Bill.
Public debate about the Racial Discrimination Act is unlikely to abate any time soon. But we hope discussion of the Act is based on an accurate understanding of what it means and how it operates. And we hope our society will remain committed to racial tolerance, non-discrimination and equality.
As it stands, the law strikes an appropriate balance between freedom from racial vilification and freedom of speech. The Commission recognises the value of robust protections for free speech to a healthy, functioning democracy.
Exemptions under Section 18D of the Act ensure that artistic works, scientific and academic inquiry, and fair comment on matters of public interest are exempt from section 18C, provided they are done reasonably and in good faith.
It is important that Australian society sends a strong message that racial vilification can be held to account, while guaranteeing freedom of speech.
Leaders of multicultural communities have spoken about the experiences of verbal abuse on public transport, on-line hate speech and race-based violence.
Researchers have given evidence of the profound harms of racism, ranging from social exclusion to psychological and physical impacts. Dr Jackie Huggins, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has said that ‘sometimes Aboriginal people just wear it as a second skin because we are so used to it’. This speaks to the resilience that many people have in the face of racism.
We teach our children to be strong and to speak out for the values that are important to them. At the same time, it is important that we have legal protections in place for people who are silenced by hate speech or who do not have the power to speak back.