It's hip to be a bigot in radical Abbott's Australia

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Speech balloon with bad thoughts coming from angry faceA commonly heard narrative about the Abbott Government is that it still behaves like an opposition. This accusation accurately characterises the pugnacity of the Tony Abbott-led Coalition — its instinctive tendency to exploit the weaknesses of its Labor opponents and to continue manipulating the voter anxieties that propelled it into office. But it would be quite wrong to see the Government as having no agenda beyond clinging to power while rewarding its friends and discomfiting its enemies.

Six months into its first term, it is apparent that this is not a conservative government in the same sense that the Howard Government was when it won office in 1996. The radical-right tendencies in that government emerged gradually, and only became dominant after it had gained a fourth term — and unexpected control of the Senate — in 2004. The result was WorkChoices. The Abbott Government, in contrast, has already sent multiple signals that it is intent upon a radical remaking of the political fabric.

Some of these signals are distinctly wacky emanations of the prime ministerial psyche, such as the restoration of knighthoods to the national honours system. Others, such as the repudiation of support for manufacturing and foreshadowed cuts to Medicare, the dole and disability pensions, indicate that the Government's economic agenda is being driven by the doctrinaire free marketeers in cabinet. Still others, such as the blurring of military and civilian roles in Operation Sovereign Borders, are corroding basic principles of constitutional democracy.

In this last category must be placed the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act announced this week by the Attorney General, George Brandis.

They are not being touted as threats to democracy, of course. On the contrary, the government and its ideological cheer squad in sections of the media and the Institute of Public Affairs, a libertarian think tank, insist that the amendments will reinvigorate democratic debate by removing shackles the act has placed on free speech. They have dismissed protests by leaders of Indigenous and ethnic communities that the changes will undermine the civility and mutual respect on which the free exchange of political opinion ultimately depends.

At present section 18C of part IIA of the act prohibits conduct that is likely to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate' a person or group of people on the basis of race. Section 18D, which the Government also wishes to repeal, exempts from this prohibition conduct carried out 'reasonably and in good faith' for specified purposes, including political commentary and debate. In other words, the act includes protection for free speech.

In place of these provisions, the draft exposure bill Senator Brandis has released for public discussion removes the words 'offend, 'insult' and 'humiliate', leaving in 'intimidate', and contains a new prohibition of conduct that vilifies people on the basis of race. If the exposure bill becomes law, the bar will be set very high: only conduct that openly incites racial hatred is likely to be censured.

The Government has not sought to deny that its desire to amend the act stems from the controversy over the conviction in 2011 of Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt for violating section 18C of the act. Bolt had been prosecuted by Pat Eatock, a lighter-skinned Aboriginal woman, after the publication in 2009 of two articles, 'It's so hip to be black' and 'White fellas in the black'.

According to the trial summary released by Federal Court judge Mordechai Bromberg, the articles contained these imputations: that fair skin indicates a person who is not sufficiently Aboriginal to identify as Aboriginal; and that there are in Australia people of some Aboriginal descent but essentially European ancestry who, motivated by career opportunities or political activism, have falsely chosen to identify as Aboriginal.

Bolt's conviction has made him a martyr to the cause of free speech in the eyes of some, and the act under which he was prosecuted has been denigrated as an artifice of political correctness intended to suppress arguments such as the one Bolt had sought to make. Those who make such claims, however, rarely refer to the evidence given at his trial, or to the judgment.

Bromberg acknowledged that Bolt could have made his case, offensive to the fair-skinned Aboriginals named in his articles though it was, and been protected by the free-speech provision of the act. He was excluded from that protection, however, because his arguments were not made 'reasonably and in good faith': not only were they excessively vituperative in tone, they were littered with factual assertions that proved to be false. When these errors were drawn to his attention he'd been insouciantly dismissive, as if they were of no consequence.

Since Bolt's argument turned on the factual claims he had made about several prominent lighter-skinned Aboriginal people, however, the errors were undoubtedly of consequence. To readers of the judgment, these claims amount to an astonishing litany of distortion, which Judge Bromberg unravels claim by claim.

Here is a sample. Bolt wrote that Eatock had 'thrived as an Aboriginal bureaucrat, activist and academic'. But Bromberg notes that 'the comment is unsupported by any factual basis and is erroneous. Ms Eatock has had only six to six-and-a-half years of employment since 1977.' Bolt wrote that 'Eatock only began to identify as Aboriginal when she was 19, after attending a political rally'. Again, Bromberg points out that Eatock 'recognised herself to be an Aboriginal from when she was eight years old ... and did not do so for political reasons'.

Is the error-laden tirade that Bolt directed against the objects of his scorn in these two articles the kind of speech that those demanding the repeal of section 18C want to allow? If it isn't, just what do they want to be able to say that the act now prohibits and would not be exempted under section 18D? Since Bolt's conviction, the defenders of repeal have evaded these questions. The best they have come up with is Senator Brandis's enigmatic, and far from reassuring, proclamation of a newly discovered human right, 'the right to be bigoted'.


 

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Hate speech image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Andrew Bolt, racial discrimination, free speech, George Brandis

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you Ray for articulating this threat to our society. What is Abbott thinking? Bigotry tears families and friends apart and fractures the social fabric.
Jane Anderson | 27 March 2014


Ray, I think you are right in saying that the Abbott government is intent on reshaping the political fabric. Let no-one think that there is not an irreconcilable divide between the current brand of political free marketers and reactionaries in the Liberal party and their Labor opponents. The critical difference is that the Liberal government knows clearly what they are about, and articulate it brazenly, but the Labor opposition has not yet quite found the words to boldly reject nearly all that their opponents stand for, and hate them unashamedly. I know I do.
Stephen K | 27 March 2014


Rather than the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act being evidence of “radical-right tendencies…corroding basic principles of constitutional democracy”, perhaps they are an attempt to reverse radical-left efforts to undermine democracy using the pretext of rights? Section 18 of the Act makes liability dependant on a subjective standard rather than the community standard thereby making it easy to manipulate by those with an axe to grind and by those who would fracture societal harmony by the use of Identity politics. Those on the Left who posture about rights are usually the most venomous: the ABC comparing climate sceptics to paedophiles, and depicting a journalist as having sex with a dog with a photo shopped image captioned “Chris ‘Dog F..ker’ Kenny”; trade union leaders saying “this filthy animal, Gina Rinehart”; the ALP in the South Australian election targeting Liberal candidate Carolyn Habib who is half-Lebanese with racist advertising; a complainant against Andrew Bolt tweeting that “a show where a guy had sex with a horse” was less offensive than a fellow Aboriginal of a different political persuasion. It’s difficult not to see the Left like Judas Iscariot who feigned concern for the poor “because he was a thief.” (John 12:6)
Ross Howard | 28 March 2014


Sadly, I think you are spot on Ray. I have closely followed Australian politics for nearly 50 years and I never felt that the conduct of a government has been so deeply disturbing. I think there combative approach stems from their plans to establish themselves in office in perpetuity.
Brian | 29 March 2014


It is interesting that there appears to be some considerable opposition to the amendment and repeal to and of certain sections of the Racial Discrimination Act by State Liberal Premiers Barry O'Farrell and Dennis Napthine. Barry O'Farrell brought up the point of Holocaust Deniers specifically, as did many Holocaust Survivors. To me this is one of the acid tests of amendment/repeal. I believe there is and will be strong opposition from within Cabinet, including from Malcolm Turnbull. I think the Government is attempting a bad change on dubious ideological grounds. Hopefully there will be enough opposition to these mooted changes from both the general public and within the Liberal Party for them to be reconsidered and withdrawn.
Edward Fido | 29 March 2014


Ms Habib was not targeted because she is Lebanese, who knew? She was targeted over bad decisions while she was in council. It is not racist to call someone by their name.
Marilyn | 29 March 2014


Great analysis Ray. But why is Australia heading down such right wing path? Conservatism is one thing, but this path is astonishing. It totally contradicts the National Athem, our Mateship culture, our Anzac tradition. Maybe we've been fed so much nationalistic jingoism for so long, we've forgotten our true traditional values.
Phil kaufman | 31 March 2014


Thanks, Ray. To me it is significant that so many Australian ethnic and cultural organisations are condemning with one voice the government's proposed changes. This must be one of the few occasions where Australian Jews and Muslims are expressing similar political concerns ! As for the comment that we should be able to rely on something called 'the community standard', the point is surely that in our thriving multicultural society there are many community standards. But we all have to get along with one another, and on the whole we do pretty well. Bolt's articles definitely crossed a line of decency and civility. Aboriginal people, Jews, Arabs, Asians recognise this fact. It is time the government did too, and withdrew this foolish and divisive legislative change. Abbott and Brandis should leave well alone. .
tony kevin | 31 March 2014


This is a stereotyping of Abbott. He is not a bigot nor does he endorse bigotry. Far from it. But Abbott is preserving the right for you not to like him and express it in public. And so on. Where is the sense of perspective in all all this?
Skye | 31 March 2014


Rather than "reinvigorate democratic debate by removing shackles the act has placed on free speech" our public discourse will descend to the level of insults hurled across a barroom. The very act of constraining one's language is a brake on impulsive, ill-considered or just plain wrong thoughts. How many off the cuff tweets or Facebook comments have led to later regret or unintended consequences? Let us continue to keep a rein on our speech.
Rose Adams | 31 March 2014


Free speech can be very expensive. We who were brought up in the War years became very conscious of the power of propaganda especially when exercised by totalitarian regimes. We cannot underestimate the ;power of the Media to influence opinion. There must be safeguards to guarantee genuine free speech.
john Ozanne | 31 March 2014


Plenty of left wing support for Ray's views. A few supportors for the right - meanwhile those in the middle have to sort out the good guys from the bad guys
Pat | 31 March 2014


Thank you Roy for your article. I am deeply concerned and disturbed about the conduct of the Abbot government and the direction that Australian politics is taking. Nobel laureate Barry Marshall has weighed in to debate with the astonishing statement, “We’re all bigots” (West Australian 26 March 2014). I think he should speak for himself – not for the many people who know instinctively that the right to free speech is always tempered by the right of individuals and groups not to be offended. The Racial Discrimination Act protects this right. If it is diluted as proposed where will our society head? Prof Marshall should walk in the shoes of racial (and other) minorities before he makes such glib remarks from his position of advantage. Bigotry destroys individuals and groups – history has demonstrated this time and time again with dire consequences. Saying it is all right to be a bigot gives people the green light to justify offensive behaviour and language. I agree with Skye – let us continue to keep a rein on our speech. Silence is golden.
Jo | 31 March 2014


To all the opponents of Tony Abbott and the coalition; Remember it was Voltaire an extreme left-wing that said "I strongly disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Ron Cini | 31 March 2014


We may well be living in "radical Abbott's Australia" but it beats the hell out of living in the corrupt, anti-Christ Australia that the ALP has forced on us over the last 40 years with the repeal of abortion law in all states by labour governments(except in NSW where the Law is afraid to prosecute under the extant anti-abortion law); where the great "socially just" ALP gave us the current refugee debacle (a fact avoided by the ES commentators), where some of the best entertainment in the country has come from the parade of corrupt ALP politicians and unionists through the criminal courts and investigative commissions. Time for some to face the truth although that means loss of face. Truth can hurt - usually it is pride that suffers most in acceptance of it. The ALP philosophy in which I grew up was the Christian ideal of the socialism of concern and justice for our fellow human beings and for those who worked for the common good, something quite foreign to the socialism of hatred and attrition which the current crop of hoodlums espouse.
john frawley | 31 March 2014


sorry I made a mistake in my ref: I meant Rose - not Skye (about keeping a rein on our speech)
Jo | 31 March 2014


Ron Cini, '...whoever insults his brother shall be liabel to the court, and whoever says, "you fool!" shall be liable to hell.' ...... '...whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.' - Jesus of Nazareth
David Timbs | 31 March 2014


"that the ALP has forced on us over the last 40 years with the repeal of abortion law " - no one is forcing you to have an abortion. You'll also note that Liberal governments haven't gone backwards on this because they know it has majority support.
Russell | 31 March 2014


There is something very strange about Tony Abbot's loose-jawed ah-ah-ahing and blinking responses to questions which surprise him. His dependency on pre-written answers, his confusion and dithering, and lack of real knowledge based on understanding, make him a likely stooge for the clever right-wingers pulling his strings. Tony won the title but the power lies in the hands of people like Brandis. Hitler also was a bit wacky and quasi-religious and took his image very seriously, but his henchmen did all the major dirty work. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Annabel | 31 March 2014


Good to see people like Anthony Dillon and Sue Gordon exposing the myth that supporting 18C repeal is racist. You can't fool all of the people all of the time.
HH | 01 April 2014


For once I'm going to side with the contributing fascist -leaning commentators - I want to know what the bigotted bastards really think and believe! I've lived in the US and realise that the superficial niceties and the lack of blatant racist or bigotted dialogue does not reflect the reality.
AURELIUS | 02 April 2014


How many from the right have friends or even know an Aboriginal or person from another race person? If they do know them how will they face them and explain how they supported something that will allow them to be called "Niggers' or suchlike in the name of free speech according to Tim Wilson. Some contributors seem to have problems with their Christianity and cant see that, in my opinion, Jesus would have spoken out against this law change.
John | 02 April 2014


The LNP do not have a monopoly on bigotry, racism or 'dog whistling', as the centre left also indulges in the same nowadays. You will not hear openly racist statements (because it's illegal), but via the media all Australians including politicians have been fed a diet of negative proxy issues 'linked' to immigrants, students, population growth, refugees, English language skills etc.. Bigotry crosses political boundaries, and is exemplified by both 'progressive' and 'right wing' media using same sources for articles about immigration etc.. This source, whether it's Colebatch for Fairfax, Bolt for News or van Onselen for MacroBusiness, they all prefer the 'research' of 'demographer' Bob 'I'm not a racist but.." Birrell (or Katherine Betts or Sustainable Population Australia). Birrell's negative findings have resonance with both old 'white Australia' and many others who would not like to admit..... Who informs Birrell et al, and the same in the UK via Population Matters? John Tanton, an admirer of the 'White Australia' policy and the racist founder of the anti immigration movement in USA whose journal The Social Contract Press which has contributions from Birrell, Betts and O'Connor of SPA.....
Andrew Smith | 11 June 2014


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