Abbott government panders to ethnic minority pressure on 18C, backflips on restoring free speech

In what he describes as a “leadership call”, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has broken yet another election promise, and abandoned proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which may have gone some way to restoring freedom of speech in Australia.

But Abbott’s backflip should come as no surprise. The writing was on the wall. Before the last election, the Liberals had implied that they may abolish Section 18C (and 18D) of the Racial Discrimination Act entirely. And at a speech addressed to the Institute Of Public Affairs in Sydney on August 6th 2012, Tony Abbott himself declared that “Freedom of speech is an essential foundation of democracy”.

But not any more, it seems.

When it came to deciding on what their proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act would be, the Liberals presented a very compromised draft bill that proposed a new section that would make it: “unlawful for a person to do an act . . . that is reasonably likely to vilify another person or a group of persons or intimidate another person or group of persons”. The words “harass”, “insult”, and “offend” were to be omitted from the current Section 18C, but “intimidate” was to remain, and “vilify” was to be added.

So, in other words, the Liberals merely tinkered with the wording, and produced a very watered-down reform, which would still have meant that ultimately, it would still have been up to judges to determine whether something was “reasonably likely to vilify another person or a group of persons or intimidate another person or group of persons”.

In all likelihood, it would still have meant that there would have been prosecutions, and that the Australian public would still have been intimidated into being extremely cautious on saying anything related to race or culture. In reality, it wasn’t really sheep stations at stake, but reforming 18C would have at least been a step in the right direction.

Whilst Attorney-General George Brandis appeared to personally understand the philosophical importance of free speech very well, and seemed genuinely committed to reform, he was rolled by his leader Abbott. Other Liberals were far less committed to restoring free speech than Brandis, and some even threatened to “cross the floor” and vote against the proposed changes.

This followed an onslaught of campaigning against the government’s 18C reforms by professional ethnic minority lobby groups, terrified that they may lose their very privileged position in Australian society, as being considered basically too precious to offend. Whether it was Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Jews, Aboriginals, or whoever, they were all united as one in advocating against the changes. With the possibility of losing marginal seats because of the “ethnic vote”, some Liberals became very uneasy.

As Voltaire said “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise”. And in modern politically correct Australia, it’s the ethnic minority powerbrokers who hold the whip hand.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson surmised the issue very well when he stated that “They should be actually interested in creating the structures and framework in our society so that people’s human rights can be protected, not appeasing to groups just because it makes their job easier”.

“The whole basis of human rights is to protect people against the majority view and so, when there are a lot of groups organised in favour of censorship, that is not a justification to silence people.”

The Liberals went to the last election with a very open policy of reforming Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, so they had a clear electoral mandate and a community expectation for reform. In backing down, Abbott chose the “easier” path, but his stated reasoning appears rather puzzling. He claimed the 18C reforms had become a “complication” in the Government’s relationship with the Australian Muslim community.

“When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of Team Australia,” Mr Abbott said.

Abbott’s words indicate he is either trying to appease Muslims, or he is trying to send a dog-whistle to his disappointed conservative voter base — “don’t blame me for the backflip, blame the Muslims!” But perhaps more truthfully, he is simply concerned about the Liberal Party losing marginal seats at the next federal election because of the “ethnic vote”.

But speaking of Muslims, the government also announced on the same day that they were planning to strengthen anti-terror laws. This would mean widening the listing criteria for terrorist organisations; extending police and ASIO powers to stop, question and detain suspects; lowering the threshold for arrest without warrant for terrorism offences; and making it easier for police authorities to seek control orders on people returning from fighting abroad.

Whilst these reforms would appear on the surface to be reasonable, Muslim spokesmen were up in arms. The Lebanese Muslim Association president Samier Dandan claimed they would be “more destructive” than the 18C reforms.

But it’s also been reported that the Government will also seek to broaden the laws to cover the prohibition of ‘terrorism’, and this may include making it an offence “to promote or encourage terrorism”. Depending on what is meant by “promoting”, “encouraging”, or “terrorism”, this could have serious ramifications for free speech in Australia. It may be setting up a very dangerous slippery slope, as governments now and in the future may use it against people who dissent in various ways.

One things is sure. Section 18C should be abolished entirely. And perhaps the only way to protect free speech appropriately for Australians both now and in the future, is to enshrine the right to free speech in our constitution, in a similar fashion to the USA’s First Amendment rights.

Government backtracks on Racial Discrimination Act 18C changes; pushes ahead with tough security laws”, ABC News, 6 August 2014 (Emma Griffiths)
Tony Abbott insists proposed changes to 18C of Racial Discrimination Act are ‘gone’; Andrew Bolt, Tim Wilson upset by backdown”, Yahoo News, 7 August 2014 (Karen Barlow)
Right-wing think tank IPA says George Brandis is backtracking on race hate laws”, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2014 (Jonathan Swan)
Tony Abbott dumps controversial changes to 18C racial discrimination laws”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 2014 (Heath Aston)
Anti-terrorism bill more destructive than race law change: Muslim group”, The Guardian, 7 August 2014 (Daniel Hurst)
Freedom of speech in the United States”, Wikipedia
In Defence of Freedom of Speech”, Quadrant Magazine, 1 October 2012 (George Brandis)


  1. My free speech, I’ll vote APP at the next election

  2. Some Democracy, where you can stand on a rooftop in Auburn or Lakemba and fly an Isis flag. I’ll bet you if I hoisted the Swastika my feet wouldn’t touch the ground. In fact I remember this happening some time ago because some guy was having a bad taste party and forgot to pull it down before the morning. He got in so much trouble.
    Double standards comes to mind (pardon the pun).

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