612 ABC Brisbane Mornings with Steve Austin, 1 March 2017



SUBJECT/S: Human Rights Committee Report on Section 18C.

STEVE AUSTIN: Do our nation’s racial discrimination laws need to be changed?  No, essentially, say a Federal Parliamentary Inquiry that looked at section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which makes it an offence to insult or offend someone on the basis of race.  Now, as you heard on AM this morning, Federal Government backbenchers are yet to find common ground on whether it should be changed.  Two Brisbane cases in particular came up in the hearings – DIVISION

STEVE AUSTIN:   Graham Perrett had to race off before for a Division in the House.  Did you win the vote or lose the vote Graham Perrett? 

GRAHAM PERRETT, MEMBER FOR MORETON:  Lost again Steve.  Sorry about that.

STEVE AUSTIN:  Well, we’re glad you came back.

GRAHAM PERRETT:  Always happy to have a chat.  I never run away from a constituent Steve. 

STEVE AUSTIN:  Your Committee spent a significant period of time and public money examining whether or not 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act needed to be changed.  And you made no firm recommendation, tell my why?

GRAHAM PERRETT: Well, there are a couple of recommendations about the Commission’s processes.  In fact all of the twenty plus recommendations are basically saying how the Human Rights Commission can do its job better.

STEVE AUSTIN: So recommendations that the Human Rights Commission could do its job better.  And did you actually make recommendations of what that would be?

GRAHAM PERRETT: Yes, well in fact much of the suggestions came from the Human Rights Commission itself that said, well this is what we would like to do in terms of:  giving notice - many people in Brisbane know of the QUT case, we heard evidence from two of the students that had been affected by that case - and in terms of having time limits for processes; make some sensible decisions about reasonable assistance to respondents; some guidance for legal practitioners; even some suggestions about letting the Human Rights Commission terminate where appropriate.  There is some tweaking of the process and also suggestion from the Committee – and ten members of the Committee, MPs and Senators, a majority of Government, four members from the Labor Party, one member from the Greens – the Committee heard so much evidence about the damage done by racism and vile hate speech that we said we wouldn’t tinker with the current legal process but we would ask the Government to put extra money into an education process so that people are aware of their rights and aware of the protections that are there.

STEVE AUSTIN: 18C was the only section of the Racial Discrimination Act that was being examined, not 18D or anything else?

GRAHAM PERRETT: No, no we were looking at Part IIA, so C and D.  And some other freedom of speech issues more broadly I guess, and a few other things in the Terms of Reference that we covered.  But the majority of the evidence that we heard – well, we had 418 submissions and 11,460 items actually received by the Committee, so we had a wide range of views, but most of it was to do with the protection that comes with 18C and also the considerations about being respectful of our fellow Australians.

STEVE AUSTIN:  Graham, based on the evidence that you heard as one of the senior Committee members, are you at all concerned about freedom of speech in Australia?  It’s not enshrined in Australia’s Constitution but many do regard it as something that must be maintained and upheld.  So let me ask you your personal view.  Did you hear any evidence, any submissions, that gave an inkling that there is a bit of concern that people are self-censoring or burying things deep within rather than saying them in public.  In other words, that freedom of speech is being unfairly, unduly restricted in Australia.

GRAHAM PERRETT: No, I didn’t get that sense.  They talk about the ‘chilling effect’ and whether that actually occurred.  We talked to lawyers from major publishing and major newspapers to ask well, what is the process in terms of what can people say, and time after time, from Free Television to newspapers they said, look they really could not give too many examples.  I think it basically came down to a couple of articles that Andrew Bolt wanted to write that they felt that they couldn’t publish.  Because of those 18D defences Steve, that you referred to, there is not too much that people are restrained from saying.  And because - you mentioned the words at the start of your intro - but remember the words have been judicially considered and the bar is actually quite high in terms of what someone would need to say.  It can’t be a ‘mere slight’ it must be a serious attack on someone before the Australian Human Rights Commission is likely to go through a process or you go through a court where you might be forced to apologise or withdraw the publication or whatever it is that you have done to offend.

STEVE AUSTIN: It’s that very element that disturbs me in the sense that it makes people who may have been a bit irrational, or poor choices in their language, it turns them into illegal criminalised speech.  That makes people very nervous.

GRAHAM PERRETT:  It’s not a criminal jurisdiction Steve remember that.  This is a civil process.

STEVE AUSTIN:  I understand that, but the point is that people end up having to spend very large amounts of money to justify the stupid remark.  In other words, I think one of the figures I saw was that one of the blokes at QUT spent $40,000 or $50,000 just to defend whether or not they said something that they said they didn’t say.

GRAHAM PERRETT:   You are certainly able to go through the process without legal representation.

STEVE AUSTIN:  That would be unwise though wouldn’t it?

GRAHAM PERRETT:   Well, as a lawyer obviously – lawyers have to live too Steve.  But some of the recommendations we have made are all about sorting out some of the more straightforward cases where there is a good defence or there is no merit or its frivolous or vexatious so that it can be dealt with quickly rather than taking up lawyers and court time and the like.  But remember the vast majority of complaints made to the Australian Human Rights Commission don’t go anywhere near a court.  I think we have only had about 90 odd cases over 20 years and they have thousands of notifications every year.  So we focussed on two cases, the Bill Leak case which didn’t even go anywhere near a court and the QUT case where the court actually threw it out.  Remember, tough cases make bad law.  If we decided everything according to the QUT case, we heard evidence that it would cause significant damage to Indigenous Australians, to multicultural Australians, to the strong community groups who, some of them, endure racism every other day and they felt that there could be a real opening of the flood gates if we change the section 18C protections.  And remember the majority of the Committee, five Liberal members of that Committee, signed off on this Report and said that they affirmed the current protections that are there.  And Steve, it is a balancing act.  You do have a right to freedom of speech in Australia, implied in lots of ways through cases and the like, but it also has to be balanced by people having a right to be free from discrimination.  And Steve, could I read some words from one of the QUT students?

STEVE AUSTIN:   Very briefly.

GRAHAM PERRETT:   I think he summed it up.  I was asking him about the ‘N’ word because that was involved in that case and I said what did he think of the word, and he said ‘I would not say it was inherently racist, the word itself has been found to be not racist on its own’.  And I said to him, well what’s your opinion of that word?  And he said, and his words are very telling.  He said ‘I am not a particular fan of it but it does not affect me, I am not African American and I am not Indigenous so it is not a word that impacts me.’  As a white Anglo-Saxon bloke, I heard so many horror stories in this Inquiry that I realise, like Mr Thwaites, that we need to be respectful of other people’s lived experience and that is why Section 18C has been retained.

STEVE AUSTIN:   I appreciate you coming on Graham.  Thanks very much.

GRAHAM PERRETT:   Cheers Steve.

STEVE AUSTIN:   Graham Perrett who was the Deputy Chair of the Human Rights Committee of Federal Parliament.  It was a Committee that actually had a majority of Coalition members on the Committee who signed off on that Inquiry Findings.

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