The Attorney-General responds to my letter

As many of you will know, I do not agree with the Commonwealth Government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act that will see section 18C amended/repealed. I believe that the amendments will give permission to vilify, insult and offend Aboriginal people, and others. Last year I wrote a letter to various members of parliament, including the Attorney-General George Brandis, the Leader of the Opposition the Honourable Bill Shorten, my local member, the Honourable Wayne Swan, and the Leader of the Greens, Senator Christine Milne.

Today I received a response from Mr Stephen Bouwhis, the Assistant Secretary, Human Rights Policy on behalf of the Attorney General and the Honourable Josh Frydenberg.

Letter from Stephen Bouwhuis, on behalf of the Attorney-General

Letter from Stephen Bouwhuis, on behalf of the Attorney-General

The text of the letter:

Thank you for your letter to the Hon Josh Frydenberg MP, concerning the Government’s consideration of amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Your letter has been referred to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis, as the issues you have raised fall within his portfolio responsibilities. The Attorney-General has asked me to reply to you on his behalf. 

The Australian Government is committed to protecting freedom of speech, which is fundamental to the health and strength of Australia’s democracy.

The proposed amendments to the Act related to one of the Government’s key priorities, namely the rebalance of human rights debate in Australia. The Government does not condone racism or racial vilification. However in the Government’s view, people should be free to express their opinions without fear of legal sanction, especially where others may find those opinions offensive.

Your views will be considered as part of the Government’s consultations on amendments to the Act.

I am yet waiting to hear from the other parties, so I actually don’t know how the Opposition and the Greens are responding to this issue.

I will be replying to this letter, and making it clear that 18C and 18D of the Act work together to protect free speech.

Section 18C provides that:

(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private if:

a. the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people; and

b. the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or some of all of the people in the group.

Section 18D states that:

Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

a. in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or

b. in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or

c. in making or publishing:

i. a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or

ii. a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.

Read together, free speech is not under threat. My biggest question is, for whom is this “rebalance” being sought? Surely part of the role of the Government and a just society, is to protect those who have the least influence and the least power. I think it can be reasonably argued that this “rebalance” is not in the best interests of those with the least power, but in fact with certain powerful and influential media interests. How is amending 18C in the best interests of this nation? I’m no legal expert, but surely this move is simply unjust?

This is such an incredibly important issue, and for me a very personal one. And yes, I’m invoking the “won’t somebody think of the children” here. Aboriginal children and young people’s identity is consistently under attack from the media and popular culture. The tropes are you’re either “not black enough so you can’t be Aboriginal” or “too black and therefore menacing or downtrodden”. By freely allowing poor “journalism” (and in the legal case that prompted the proposed amendments, to an audience in the tens of thousands) the nation validates the on-going questioning of Aboriginal identity.  As a parent, I focus on the positive, I tell my babies that they’re deadly, that being Aboriginal is deadly. But that all comes undone (or at least is under attack) when they’re subject to representations that on-goingly question and challenge who they are. And with reports like this, is this really what our government should be focusing on?

Dear reader, I hope that you will take on this issue, it is important for this generation and for future generations. If you would like to write a letter, I have my letters that you can copy (on Google Docs), just add in your own details. I’d love to hear from people about what they’re doing to let the government know that “freedom” in a modern, sophisticated, and civilised democracy doesn’t mean and never meant the right to attack people’s Aboriginality.

Regards, Leesa