Defending the rights of bigots: Attorney-General George Brandis being pursued by reporters in Sydney. Photo: AAP/Ehssan Veiszadeh
Leaders of Greek and other ethnic communities in Australia reacted strongly this week to the Federal Government’s plans to revise the Racial Discrimination Act, saying the proposals would give a green light to racism.
The government is proposing to remove key provisions in section 18 of the Act which make it an offence to publicly ‘offend, insult and humiliate’ another person or group based on their race, while narrowing the definition of ‘intimidate’ so it applies only where a victim fears ‘physical harm’.
A new clause would be added to ban racial vilification – with an exemption available depending on the context of the alleged vilification.
Attorney-General George Brandis has defended the proposals, saying present legislation had the effect of stifling public discussion and limiting freedom of speech.
“Those three words – offend, insult, humiliate – describe what has sometimes been called hurt feelings,” Mr Brandis said this week, adding that it was not the role of the state to ban conduct “merely because it might hurt the feelings of others”.
The proposed amendments – which are open for public comment for a month – have drawn widespread criticism from community leaders.
President of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (GOCMV), Bill Papastergiadis, told Neos Kosmos he was opposed to the government’s proposals.
“I oppose the changes, as does GOCMV. In my view [the amendments] as currently drafted to protect against vilification are likely to be completely ineffective.
“The exemption – for the purposes of allowing someone to racially vilify and be free of any penalty – is so broad it would encompass 80 to 90 per cent of public discourse.
“Our community’s values and rights in a multicultural society, are to prevent and avoid humiliation and insult associated with vilification. That’s the society I want to live in,” said Mr Papastergiadis.
GOCMV’s president said he would be writing to the Attorney-General to voice the Community’s opposition to the amendments.
In a speech to the Victorian Parliament, State Opposition Minister Jenny Mikakos said she was “disgusted” by Mr Brandis’ comments in defence of the amendments when he said that “people have the right to be bigots.”
“As a democratic and free nation – a diverse and educated nation – we all like to think that incidents of racial vilification in Australia, indeed of any type of vilification, will decrease over time.
“Senator Brandis’ comments do nothing to advance that cause,” said Ms Mikakos.
“The Abbott government is intent on giving the green light to bigotry and all but destroying Australia’s moral compass in the process.”
Meanwhile, Victoria’s Multicultural Affairs Minister Matthew Guy has broken ranks with federal Coalition colleagues over the matter.
In a strongly-worded speech to State Parliament on Thursday, Mr Guy said the Victorian Coalition government would make be making a submission to the Commonwealth about its concerns over changes to the act.
“There isn’t any place for bigotry in this country,” Mr Guy told Parliament.
“I am concerned there may be some harmful and unintended impacts upon our community should the exposure draft as it stands be enacted.”
Joe Caputo, Chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, said that he urged “everyone who believes that Australian society should be free from discrimination, everyone who has experienced or witnessed racial hatred and abuse, to make their views known to the Government as part of the one-month consultation process.”
Federal Labor MP Maria Vamvakinou described the amendments as “ill conceived, backward looking and arrogant”.
The member for Calwell added that Australia was a successful multicultural society, “not by accident, but by careful and thoughtful design, good multicultural policy and successful integration of our migrant communities requires amongst other things, sound racial discrimination laws.”
Labor has begun a widespread campaign urging ethnic groups to make public submissions on the proposed changes.
One of the highest profile examples of alleged racial vilification involving the Greek Australian community in recent years was the complaint made by the Australian Macedonian Advisory Council (AMAC) against the Australian ‘Macedonian’ (sic) Weekly (AMW).
A spokesman for AMAC – which lost a VCAT hearing against the AMW over the newspaper’s alleged racial vilification of Greeks – told Neos Kosmos that it was unclear whether the amendments proposed in the federal Act would result in addressing “the serious flaws in the Victorian legislation which the case exposed”.
In 2011 VCAT dismissed AMAC’s complaint alleging that the newspaper had racially vilified Greek people. VCAT ruled that as the AMW’s target audience were readers who shared its opinions – statements published saying that Greeks were “freaks of nature” and “deranged bastardly monsters” – had not breached Victorian legislation, as the newspaper was “preaching to the converted” and therefore no incitement of racial hatred had occurred.
AMAC’s spokesman added that the Federal Government’s proposed amendments brought the federal Act closer to the Victorian legislation, but without adequately addressing the serious flaw in the state’s legislation which the AMW case exposed.
The government has called for public submissions on the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act by 30 April. Submissions may be emailed to: email@example.com
source: Neos Kosmos