Earlier this week, a 26-year-old Muslim woman was bashed and thrown off a train at Batman railway station in Melbourne. The attack was vicious and completely unprovoked. The victim did not know the attacker, had not talked to the attacker and was attacked purely on the religious faith she held based on the clothes she wore. This is a reprehensible and disgusting act, and police are still looking for the person responsible. I hope they find them very soon. I believe that the fundamental purpose of government is to protect the weak from the strong, to ensure that we have a community where everyone can feel safe and contribute without fear of being vilified, where the circumstances of someone’s birth or religious beliefs do not affect the opportunities available to them or how they are treated. No-one should fear that they will be vilified when walking down the street, going to work, catching the train or listening to the radio.
The Racial Discrimination Amendment Bill 2014 is a debate on what values we as a nation hold as core values, on what we as a nation believe is important. Do Australians really believe it is more important to protect the so-called right of people to vilify others even when it comes at the expense of the right of people not to be vilified? I do not think they do.
One of the co-sponsors of this bill, Senator Leyonhjelm, has said previously that his political philosophy is grounded in the philosophical principles of John Stuart Mill:
That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
I would argue that in this case section 18C as it stands would be thoroughly supported by John Stuart Mill, because it fulfils his requirement for the exercising of power. It prevents harm to others. Because it is harmful to others when they hear their names slandered on national syndicated radio. It is harmful to others when they are humiliated and insulted based on ethnicity or religion, and it is harmful to others to be demeaned because of the faith they practise or the garments that they wear to practise this faith.
Senator Leyonhjelm and others with his views will argue whether it is up to this place to regulate such behaviour. Once again, taking the views of his beloved John Stuart Mill, I would like to quote chapter four on liberty, where he states:
As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion.
To hammer that point home: as soon as any part of a person’s conduct effects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it. That means it is a perfectly legitimate act of this place and the other place, even within Senator Leyonhjelm’s own ideological framework, to legislate against despicable racist acts and slurs. Senator Leyonhjelm and others in this place cannot argue for the freedoms espoused by Mill if they do not also accept where he believes power should be exercised by the state. They cannot cherry pick from Mill when it serves their own interests.
As the body responsible for creating legislation as the duly elected, freely chosen body of the people, it is therefore this parliament’s right, indeed its duty, to improve the general welfare by enacting laws that prevent people from prejudicing the interests of others. This is what this parliament has done. It is what this parliament did almost forty years ago when the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was passed through this parliament during the government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The act has served this nation well since that time.
Unfortunately, racism has not been eradicated completely but it is important that the fight against it is continued. Mr Whitlam gave an eloquent explanation as to why racism was so abhorrent in the 1972 debate in the other place when he said:
Racism is the ultimate violence because it begins and ends with the denial of man’s basic humanity.
Does Australia really want to be a place that espouses denying people’s humanity through hate speech? Senators Bernardi and Smith are also co-sponsors of this bill and, Senator Smith, I was surprised that you were co-sponsoring this bill. You said you didn’t think anyone was. Trust me: I was—not with anybody else, but with you I was.
Months ago Mr Abbott told us that changes to the Racial Discrimination Act were no longer being considered. Mr Abbott said:
It’s off the table, it’s gone, it’s disappeared …
But now, Mr Abbott’s own senators have come into this place and sought to make changes to section 18C that Mr Abbott promised would not happen. This is another broken promise by Mr Abbott and he really needs to get his house in order. If Mr Abbott really believes himself to be captain of Team Australia, then he should show some leadership and tell his forward line to stop attacking the other members of the team.
Senator Bernardi has told this place time and time again that he is in favour of free speech, that he believes in freedom; except Senator Bernardi also seeks to ban the religious garments of Islam. I find it hypocritical when senators come into this place advocating for the freedom to vilify and hate on the one hand but wish to deny freedom of religious practice for others. This is what freedom means to Senator Bernardi. People should be free to do whatever they like as long as Senator Bernardi approves.
Are senators really in this place to advocate for hatred and against tolerance? I think they need to have a good hard look at their conscience and realise that they are here to legislate for the benefit of all Australians. This bill has generated great interest from both sides of the debate; however, I believe that when we look at the bills in this place, we have to ask ourselves a number of questions: who will this change harm? Who would this change benefit? Will this improve the general welfare? Why would a senator in this place support this legislation?
Looking at these questions, the answers seem quite clear. The changes in this bill will harm decent, upstanding law-abiding members of culturally and linguistically diverse communities. It will harm decent, upstanding members of our community who seek to practice their religion peacefully without harming others.
So, who will this change benefit? Unfortunately, this change would benefit those that seek to insult and offend people based on their religious beliefs or ethnicity. Will this bill improve general welfare? In addition to the harm to others, it also does great harm to our society. Radicalism rises when we tell people that they are not welcome and when we say that Australia has no issue with allowing our culturally and linguistically diverse citizens to be vilified based on race or religion.
Which brings us to our final question: why would a senator in this place support this change? I would just like to take a moment to quote from the then member for Isaacs, Mr Clayton, during the 1975 debate in the House, when he spoke of those who opposed the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act. He said:
… I still have no possible explanation of why he is really opposed to this legislation except to conclude that what he really seeks is to perpetuate in this country the existing situation in which people can and do commit acts which discriminate against people of particular races and hide behind supposed rights at law in order to protect themselves from being brought to justice for committing these acts.
And that is the crux of this bill and this debate.
We, too, must conclude that senators Bernardi, Day, Smith and Leyonhjelm, through the sponsorship of this bill, seek to allow people to commit acts which discriminate against people of particular races and hide behind supposed rights at law in order to protect themselves from being brought to justice for committing these acts.
I know that some senators do not always necessarily treat this place as they should but I do have to say that I find this bill quite disgusting.