Speech on Report into Freedom of Speech, Parliament House

Mr PERRETT: As deputy chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, I have been chastened and humbled to hear the disturbing evidence presented to this human rights inquiry. It is particularly important that I note up-front that the committee is recommending no change to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Australia is a successful multicultural nation, but that does not mean we can be complacent about protecting our minority communities from racist abuse. The inquiry has heard evidence from people right across Australia who have been subjected to racist behaviour, sometimes almost every day. We heard evidence of the harm that racism causes to individuals and their communities. It is detrimental to their health, detrimental to their employment prospects and detrimental to their educational advancement, and it results in exclusion and marginalisation.

No government law will ever prevent all racism, but laws set the standard of acceptable community behaviour. We only need to look through history to see examples of behaviour at times when racism has been accepted, such as during the civil rights movement in the United States of America and even in Germany in the 1930s when racism was the law. Sadly, even in our own backyard here in Australia we have not been immune to racist ideology creeping into law and policymaking. In fact, the very first piece of legislation passed by the Commonwealth parliament was the White Australia policy, a unity ticket for all members of parliament. But things have moved on. In fact, the Australian Constitution, our nation's birth certificate, still discriminates against Indigenous Australians. Hopefully, that will change.

Laws help set the standard of acceptable community behaviour. Once our Constitution was amended in 1967, once the White Australia policy was dismantled, Australians, mostly, respected that Indigenous Australians should be treated equally and that immigrants should be welcome and accepted. This powerful message has helped to make us the most successful multicultural nation in the world. For more than 20 years, part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act has been helping to prevent racial hatred. Part IIA of the RDA is well established and well supported. It strikes an appropriate balance between freedom of speech and freedom from racial abuse and should be retained and strongly supported by all Australians. I thank the committee members, including the member for Brand, for being involved in a report that recommends that status quo. The four Labor members of the committee believe that no case has been made to amend part IIA in any way, and I am thankful that the report put forward by the member for Moore, the chair of the committee, reflects that.

Parliamentary committee process is important. The majority committee report from this inquiry notes that many members of the committee did have differing views about how to balance the competing rights and freedoms that were the subject of this inquiry. That is how committees work. It is only when there is overwhelming support for a particular course of action that a recommendation for change will result. In this case, there was not overwhelming support for any change to part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act and therefore no recommendation to amend part IIA has flowed from this Turnbull government initiated inquiry. The committee has not recommended any amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act. I stress that. The majority report of the committee and the recommendations for legislative and policy change that are contained within it reflect some of the community concerns heard by the committee.

The committee has made 19 recommendations around the procedures of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Labor members of the committee are supportive of improving procedures at the AHRC. In fact, the Australian Human Rights Commission itself recommended some amendment to its own procedure. While I support the premise of these procedural amendments, it comes with the caveat that any implementation of these amendments must be cognisant of these three factors: any amendment must be constitutional, and the inquiry heard evidence from constitutional experts around some of these recommendations, and it is trite to say that these are very complicated issues which will need to be thoroughly explored to ensure that any implementation does not fall foul of my constitutional concerns; access to justice must continue to be a paramount principle when implementing any change to the complaints procedure of the AHRC; and any implementation of a recommendation that will result in increasing the workload of the Australian Human Rights Commission should be coupled with the appropriate increased resources for the AHRC to function efficiently.

It has only been 112 days since the date of the referral of this inquiry, and 62 of those days were in December and January, a time when, traditionally, Australians and community groups have some time off and come together with their families. But during this ridiculously short time frame the committee has heard evidence in every capital city. If you look at the faces of the secretariat up there in the gallery, you will see that it shows. We have received 11,460 items, including 418 submissions. It is a credit to the secretariat that they were able to deal with all of these.

It is a remarkable achievement that, despite the strict time frame arbitrarily dictated by the government, we have tabled this report, and some credit does go to the work of the member for Moore for his chairing of the committee. I thank all of my fellow committee members from all sides of this chamber, including those located opposite. I cannot quite make out their faces, but they seem familiar, those gentlemen up the back there! I thank all my fellow committee members for recognising the harm that racism causes in the community and for constructively working through the issues raised. The recommendations that are included in the majority committee report are all intended to increase the ability of the AHRC to process complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act, increasing access to justice for complainants and respondents.

Much of the media attention that has surrounded this inquiry has centred around two cases: the QUT case and the Bill Leak case. There have been many criticisms of these cases, even though the QUT case was actually dismissed in court and the Bill Leak case was withdrawn. Some criticisms of the procedural handling of these two cases have been addressed in the recommendations, but neither of these cases provided a substantive case for changing the Racial Discrimination Act. As the committee was told by several witnesses, hard cases make bad law.

Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act is a piece of legislation that most of us will, hopefully, never have to encounter. Most of us, especially Anglo-Saxon males in positions of power, will not need to make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission under section 18C. Most of us will not be respondents to a complaint either. But to minority groups in Australia part IIA is very important, and watering it down in any way would cause much harm to them. At the extreme end of racial abuse, white supremacists do not care what harm is visited on those they wickedly try to victimise with their vile hate speech. However, there is a special place in hell reserved for those apologists for white supremacists and those who enable their vile work. All sensible members of a tolerant society must remain vigilant and ensure that any rise in racism is combated and controlled.

Many witnesses to the inquiry spoke of their concern that any change to part IIA of the RDA would send a dangerous message to the community about acceptable standards of behaviour. That message would be a signal not only to white supremacists and the like but to others in the community, especially those keyboard warriors who gutlessly and carelessly hurl around their vile abuse. Social media has become the modern school ground for racial bullies. Sadly, we drag the playground into our lounge rooms and our bedrooms. These bullies can bravely throw their racist abuse from the safety and, usually, anonymity of their homes, while the victims remain vulnerable everywhere, with nowhere to hide.

The committee heard evidence from experts in cyber racism that removing or watering down regulations protecting from racist abuse would open up opportunities for people to 'push it further'. From all of the evidence presented to the human rights committee, what has been brought home loud and clear is that protections against racism are important. They are important to those facing racism every day, they are important to our communities as a benchmark for behaviour and they are important to our Australian businesses that are more productive when their workers are not concerned about being racially abused. Now is not the time to water down laws that protect our vulnerable minorities from this type of abuse. That is not the Australia that I love—not on my watch.

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