In political circles, s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act is one of the hottest topics. Out in the broader community, it is not exactly high on the agenda. But the government is seemingly moving towards repealing that section of the Act. Indeed, it was one of the commitments made by the government when in opposition.
If the government were to break their promise, and not repeal s18c, they would lose no political skin. The government is still talking about a repeal of s18c of the Act however, though the final outcome may not end up being the removal of this part of the Act. There does appear to be mixed messages from the government.
Both sides of the debate have been passionately advocating their respective positions since the policy was announced. Sometimes that passion has been overly emotional. Nuanced and dispassionate consideration of the issue at hand has often been lacking, with the full repeal advocates and those in favour of the status quo being the loudest participants.
As you would imagine, the issue has been hotly debated on the various political panel shows for some time. And that debate has continued to accelerate in recent weeks, including on The Drum and Q&A last week.
There was a mostly mature discussion of the subject on both programs. The political class, the politicians in this case on Q&A, did get a little more emotional than those closer to the periphery of political debate, the guests on The Drum.
And then there was the social media commentary from the politically engaged. Twitter, as it often does, played host to a whole new level of angry and emotional consideration of the topic.
From the Twitter discussion last week, I learned that privileged, white, middle-aged males in particular have no right to take offense at any kind of jibes directed towards them. However everyone else is, in the eyes of a number of people on Twitter, allowed to seek comfort from the law. White privilege apparently means that no laws are required.
This is a problem. It is a problem because we live in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy. Granted we do not always get the application of liberal democratic values right in our society, but we are, for all intents and purposes, at the very least in name, a liberal democracy. That means that everyone is supposed to be equal before the law. Everyone is to be treated the same by and under the law.
When it comes to the section of the Racial Discrimination Act in question, I have been on quite a journey. I have held a few positions since the court case involving Andrew Bolt, which started us on the journey to the debate we are having at the present time.
At first my largely libertarian and liberal politics came to the fore. I thought that section of the Act just had to go because, well, free speech. It was a very absolute position. How could anything else possibly amount to free speech I thought.
Then I thought about it some more when I heard David Marr speaking on one of the panel shows on television. His position was that the part of the Act being debated should be altered.
At present, someone is in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act if they engage in behaviour which ‘offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates’.
David Marr has argued that the first two words: ‘offends’ and ‘insults’ are too subjective. The threshold there is indeed too low. A higher test should apply to the Act, and at the time I thought that Mr Marr’s thinking struck the right balance.
But again in recent days I have reconsidered my position. I have begun to think that the word ‘humiliates’ should be removed from the Act. The word seems to me to be so similar to the first two that it is an unnecessary part of the legal test for discrimination.
I do however think that the word ‘intimidates’ needs to be retained in the legislation. Essentially, racial discrimination and vilification in its purest sense is behaviour which intimidates the victim. It is the very foundation of true hate speech and has no part in a civilised society.
In short, we should have laws against hate speech. However, neither the status qu0 nor the proposed alternative position are adequate ways of dealing with what is a very complex issue.
It is worthy to note too that no single characterisation of the Act, either considered here or elsewhere, will eradicate discrimination. However, a legal remedy must remain available for when discrimination and vilification has been found to have occurred.
Parliament is often very loud. Parliamentarians are regularly seen raising their voices at one another across the floor of the parliament. But it is not very often that a lot of noise comes from the public gallery. But earlier this week that is exactly what happened. A group of protesters, as they have once or twice before in this the 43rd parliament, raised their voices and heckled and called the Prime Minister those most creative and under-used names which will not be repeated here.
This week’s interruption, as the last one did, raised two main questions. The first is all about the standards of the public discourse and any improvement it requires. The second question is the most important and that is who is ultimately responsible for the tone and demeanour of political communication – any communication for that matter.
The tone and manner of all forms of communication, especially that of a political nature actually matters. We the public get frustrated with the behaviour of our politicians, frequently referring to them as different kinds of animals because of their rambunctious and at times obnoxious behaviour in parliament, most notably during Question Time.
Parliamentary debate, even during the hot-headed hour and ten minutes that is Question Time should be much more subdued and civilised. Obscene statements and generalisations should be kept to a minimum. More importantly, name-calling, despite our larrikin nature as Australians simply should not take place.
Despite the poor behaviour of our elected representatives, we should not be engaging in equally poor behaviour ourselves. Parliament should be treated with respect, regardless of the political colour of the government of the day. That means no childish name-calling from the galleries, despite what’s happening in the chamber.
What happened the other day was simply too much. The whole spectacle was ugly. The way the protesters chose to interact with the Labor Government demeaned the parliament. More importantly, it made the protesters look just as silly as the politicians they dislike. The actions of the protesters also unfortunately and rather unfairly. tarred with the same brush, those who might have a similar view of the current government, but express their disquiet in a different manner.
That’s not to say that protest is not a vital part of democracy. It is. But as with protest elsewhere, it should be conducted in a sensible manner and in a sensible forum or it does the cause behind it much harm.
The response to the loud behaviour of the observers was both fair and unfair. The Speaker was right to chastise the rowdy actions which took place this week. There should be a zero tolerance approach to an interruption of the parliament that is loud like that. Very few people outside of those involved in or sympathetic to the particular cause involved, ever take such actions seriously.
What was quite unfair about elements of the response was the apportioning of blame for the actions of those in the public gallery. The Coalition were singled out and blame was apportioned. Yes, the Coalition have been responsible for some pretty ordinary moments during this minority government, as have the ALP. But that was their actions and again, a rational response from those which view such behaviour is not to repeat it.
There is also a very important concept in liberal thought which is completely ignored by this purely political accusation levelled at the Liberal and National Party Coalition. That concept is one of responsibility for one’s own actions. Despite the sometimes over-the-top actions from the Opposition, it is the protesters and only the protesters, who are responsible for their actions.
It is important that the standards of political communication improve. It would cut down on some of the cynicism which surrounds politics, though not necessarily the political process itself. Both politicians and the public need to improve how they discuss and engage with politics.
First and foremost, politicians and punters alike are responsible for their own actions, not one side of politics or another.