Warning over 18C revamp

Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim.

RACE Relations Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has come out strongly in defence of a key provision of the Racial Discrimination Act which protects individuals and groups from vilification.

Delivering the Alice Tay Lecture in Law and Human Rights on Monday at ANU, the commissioner said the current law has been effective and there is no case for changing it, as Attorney-General George Brandis is planning.

“The danger of dismantling Section 18C is that it may license racial hatred. It may encourage people to think there is no harm in dealing out racial vilification. It may unleash a darker, even violent, side of our humanity which revels in the humiliation of the vulnerable,” said Soutphommasane.

Proponents of the repeal of 18C, such as Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, have said that offensive comments should be countered rather than criminalised. However, Soutphommasane said, “Racism can … have the effect of silencing its targets. This is one reason … why we can’t assume that good speech can overcome bad speech.

“Such thinking is naive optimism … As the testimony of those who experience racism demonstrates, we can’t expect the speech of the weak to counter the speech of the strong.”

Section 18C currently prohibits public acts “reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” individuals or groups on grounds of “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim, who has joined leaders of other minorities in a campaign to safeguard Section 18C, said the Race Relations Commissioner’s analysis was spot-on. “Dr Soutphommasane explored the moral, practical and theoretical underpinnings of the existing law with an authority and lucidity that has put the law’s critics to shame.

“The government would be well advised to comb through his address and, if it thinks it can find any flaws in what he said, to explain their thinking clearly to the Australian people before proposing any legislative changes.”

PETER KOHN

ECAJ executive director Peter Wertheim said Tim Soutphommasane is spot-on.