The questions you're too embarrassed to ask about the racial discrimination act.


There’s a lot of talk around today about racial discrimination laws.

As you might’ve gathered, the Federal government was planning to change them, but then abandoned that move yesterday.

If you haven’t got your head around the whole issue yet — or if you’re too embarrassed to ask a friend what those laws actually are — read on. We’ve put together a five-minute guide that should have you sorted (for your next dinner party, at least.)

So, what’s going on?

In news that has been welcomed by Labor and the Greens — and  angered conservative columnist Andrew Bolt — the Abbott government has backed down on its planned changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the decision not to go ahead with the changes was a ‘leadership call’.

“Leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this position,” he said. ‘‘We are dealing with the situation we find ourselves in and I want the communities of the country to be our friend not our critic.”

Wait, what even ARE these laws?

The Commonwealth government has introduced various anti-discrimination laws over the last 30 years, and one of those laws is a piece of legislation called the Racial Discrimination Act. (It was passed during the dying months of the Whitlam government.)

Attorney-General George Brandis.

As Amy Stockwell previously wrote on Mamamia, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1995 makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group because of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

Meanwhile, section 18D effectively provides a defence to conduct committed in breach of 18C if the conduct was done for a particular reason, reasonably and in good faith.

Those two sections work together, as Stockwell wrote: so, section 18C provides freedom from racial prejudice, and section 18D provides a balance to protect freedom of speech on matters of public interest.

Got it? Law lecture over.

Why do people think s18C needs to be changed?

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is the law that was used against Andrew Bolt in 2011, and consequently became known as the “Bolt laws”.

Columunist Andrew Bolt.

That lawsuit related to two 2009 blog posts Bolt wrote alleging that a number of fair-skinned Indigenous Australians were pretending to be Aboriginal for personal gain.

Nine Aboriginal people sued Bolt and his employer, The Herald and Weekly Times, under section 18C — and in 2011, Justice Bromberg of the Federal Court found Bolt had breached the section, as Stockwell wrote.

On hearing the decision, Andrew Bolt immediately declared it “a terrible day for free speech in this country”.

The Abbott government made a pre-election promise to  repeal section 18C of the Act, and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis later released a draft of new provisions for the Act.


Under that draft, the provisions of 18C were to be replaced with a requirement that the conduct must not vilify or intimidate.

But quite a few individuals and groups loudly criticised the draft provisions: In an open letter, indigenous and ethnic groups said: “We oppose absolutely any such change. Paradoxically for free speech advocates, racial vilification can have a silencing effect on those who are vilified.”

Indigenous Australian politician and athlete Senator Nova Peris also voiced her concern that the drafted changes might “facilitate [racial] vilification by bigots” — a comment to which Brandis famously responded: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know.”

How’s everyone reacting to the government’s abandonment of the s 18C changes?

Labor, the Greens, some ethnic community leaders and Australia’s race discrimination commissioner are rejoicing at the government’s decision to abandon proposed changes to the Act, as The Guardian reports.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten welcomed the move, saying yesterday that Brandis’ “priority as Attorney-General has been to allow racists to be racists”, while acting leader of the Greens Adam Bandt said the move was “a win for everyone who stands against racism, ideologues and intolerance.”

Indigenous MP Ken Wyatt and Indigenous Labor Senator Nova Peris also welcomed the Prime Minister’s back down, the ABC reports.

Unsurprisingly, Andrew Bolt is less happy; he said on his 2GB radio show last night that the government’s decision spelt a dangerous time for Australia, Fairfax Media reports.

The executive director of conservative think-tank Institute of Public Affairs John Roskam also criticised the move, calling it ‘a broken promise’.

“The Coalition’s failure to fulfil its promise to restore free speech in Australia by repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Actis incredibly disappointing,” Mr Roskam said. “Freedom of speech is fundamental to democracy. If people are not free to debate and discuss ideas then we no longer live in a free society.”

Tim Wilson, the human rights commissioner appointed by Brandis, also voiced his disappointment, saying ‘It should not be illegal to offend someone.’

“There is a human right to free speech. There is no human right to be free of offence,” Wilson tweeted.

His views oppose those of Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, who last year wrote for The Conversation:

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, we know how important the prohibition of racial abuse is to the Australian community. Last year, the commission received a 59% increase in complaints about racial abuse in the workplace, on radio, on public transport and at football matches… In stark contrast, the commission might receive one or two complaints per year alleging violation of the right to freedom of expression.

What do you think? Should the government have gone ahead with changing the Racial Discrimination Act?

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