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.