On Wednesday last week (22/3/170) the AG George Brandis introduced the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 into the Senate with the intention of its being considered very quickly. It immediately generated a wave of community opposition – especially from ethnic/multicultural community groups.
On Thursday, the Bill was referred to the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee for a ridiculously rushed ‘review’ with the Committee having to report by the following Tuesday (28/3/17).
This was a provocative time frame, effectively barring the community from any meaningful input into assessing the implications of the proposed changes on the ambit and operation of the Act.
NSWCCL strongly opposes the proposed amendments in this Bill which will seriously and unnecessarily weaken protections against race hate speech currently provided by s18(C ) of the Act.
Weakening s18(C )
While the Bill does not accede to the demands of the extreme opponents of the Act to repeal s18(C ), it does include amendments that will significantly reduce the protections provided by the section:
- the removal of the words ‘offend, insult and humiliate’ and their replacement with ‘harass and
- the replacement of the current objective test of the effects of alleged race hate speech (the standards of a ‘reasonable member of the relevant group’) with the standards of a ‘member of the Australian community’.
The PM and the AG assert these amendments ‘strengthen’ the Act. This is an ambiguous description. They certainly do not strengthen the protection against race hate speech currently provided by the Act. They will narrow and weaken these protections and create uncertainty as to what speech will be now be unlawful or permitted. There will be a lengthy period before a clear and settled judicial interpretation is established.
The existing standard of a ‘reasonable member of the relevant group’ as the basis for the objective test of the alleged offence is an appropriate standard for an offence that is experienced by particular groups and is particularly important in avoiding bias when the complainant is from a particularly disadvantaged or unpopular group. NSWCCL opposes the amendment to broaden this to a member of 'the Australian community'.
In the current highly charged political context relating to asylum seekers, refugees, and multiculturalism and race relations these are dangerous amendments.
The free speech justification
The Government says it wants to protect free speech – but has not been able to provide an example of the kind of ‘free speech’ that will be protected by these changes that is not already protected either by the exceptions specified in s18(D ) or by the well-established case law interpretation of s18(C ) requiring the alleged act to have ‘profound and serious effects not to be likened to mere slights’.
The most depressing aspect of the torrid campaign against s18(C ) and the AHRC (and its President) by a small section of the community and the media has been the way in which the facts of these cases – and the earlier Bolt case – have been seriously distorted to create the false impression that s18(C ) and the AHRC together impose a draconian prohibition on free speech.
Notwithstanding all the outrage surrounding them, the QUT case was dismissed and the Bill Leak cartoon – if the complaint had not been withdrawn- was almost certainly unlikely to be upheld as unlawful under the current Act.
NSWCCL agrees with those who warn that the removal of these offences from s18(C) at this point in time will send a clear message that it is now acceptable ‘to offend, insult and humiliate’ people on the grounds of their race, colour, nationality or ethnicity. Such an outcome will generate much hurt and tension amongst persons subject to this kind of speech and may well provide unintended impetus for the growth of racism and prejudice in Australia - especially against our Muslim community.
NSW CCL position
In our submission to the Joint Parliamentary HR Committee we recommended removing ‘offend and insult’ and replacing it with ‘vilify’- not because the current words inappropriately restricted free speech in the operation of the Act, but because it is generally preferable that the Act clearly communicate the judicial interpretation of the offence.
‘Vilification’ includes offending and insulting, but suggests they need to be of a high level and serious, and not trivial, nature – and would thus bring the language of the Act into line with the operational judicial interpretation. It would not weaken the Act’s protection against racist speech but would help clarify current confusion as to what is, and isn’t, unlawful.
We were cautious in so recommending because of the possible unintended consequences of repealing long-standing categories of race hate speech in a politically toxic environment – and had previously argued that S18(C ) should be left unchanged.
The HR Committee could not make a specific recommendation on s18(C). This should have signalled to the Government that the wisest course would be to leave it alone. However by proposing to remove ‘offend, insult and humiliate’ and replace them with ‘harrass’ the Government has chosen a more provocative, unacceptable path.
Given this and the ongoing toxicity and misinformation of the public debate NSWCCL reaffirms its earlier position- leave s18(C ) alone.
The Bill also proposes numbers of amendments to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 dealing with the Commission’s procedures, its oversight and the role of the President.
NSWCCL considers the broad processes of the AHRC to have been, for over 20 years, highly effective in providing low cost access to a complaints conciliation process which has successfully resolved the large majority of valid complaints relating to race discrimination.
Nonetheless many of these amendments appear to be a sensible tightening up of procedures and have broad support- including from the AHRC.
NSWCCL has not had time to carefully consider the implications of all these procedural amendments, but we do reiterate our general concern that some of them may undermine the current accessibility of the AHRC to complainants with limited resources if the cost of lodging a complaint or of failure to have a complaint upheld – become a barrier.
It is clearly important that any reforms to improve the Commission’s effectiveness do not undermine its powers or independence and its current accessibility to persons wanting to make a complaint.
The President of the AHRC has expressed particular concern in relation to a number of the amendments and understands the Government may address some of her concerns in the final version of the Bill. When giving evidence on the Bill on Friday the President expressed ongoing concern about numbers of procedural amendments that the Government did not appear willing to change. As it is possible the procedural amendments may proceed even if the amendments to s18(C ) are rejected by the Senate – it is to be hoped the Government can be persuaded to address the AHRC’s advice on the likely consequences of these amendments.
The Senates role
The Bill is scheduled to return to the Senate today. A wise Government would be withdrawing the s18 (C ) amendments. If not NSWCCL is hopeful that the Senate fulfils its legislative review functions and rejects these amendments in toto.
Dr Lesley Lynch