Leaders unite to save 18C

Wertheim 18C

SEVERAL roof bodies representing ethnic and religious minorities, including the Jewish community, have signed off on a statement urging Attorney-General George Brandis to drop his proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), which they say would weaken racial vilification protections.

The statement was signed last Wednesday and sent to all federal Senators and MPs, including Brandis.

“Without Section 18C, the Jewish community would lose a powerful weapon that has been used successfully many times to take action against anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial, usually without having to go to court,” Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim, who is a signatory, told The AJN this week.

The statement was also signed by leaders from the Arab Council Australia, the Australian Hellenic Council, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the Chinese Australian Forum, the Lebanese Muslim Association, the Vietnamese Community in Australia, the Armenian National Council of Australia, the United Muslim Women’s Association, and activist group All Together Now.

Brandis made an election promise to repeal Section 18C of the RDA, which renders illegal actions or speech that are “reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate [people] … because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

Brandis told The AJN last month the change would “strengthen free speech in Australia”, but it has caused deep concern among minority communities, including the Jewish community.

“This issue has been falsely framed as one of freedom of expression,” Wertheim said.

“To include racist name-calling within the rubric of freedom of expression is a debasement of ­freedom … and [people’s] human dignity.”

Wertheim said he and other leaders were disappointed and “felt let down” by the Abbott government’s lack of consultation about changes to the RDA.

The statement asserts 18C’s repeal “would be a step backwards for Australia” as “racial vilification deprives its targets of equal treatment and a fair go”.

“The cultural diversity of Australia’s people is a great source of our nation’s strength … [and] imposes an obligation on government to protect and encourage social cohesion,” the statement reads.

“Failure to do so can have very serious if not catastrophic consequences for our society. A change to the RDA would send a signal that racism is acceptable.”

ALEXANDRA ROACH

Peter Wertheim (back centre) joined religious and ethnic leaders signing a statement against amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.