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The Government's high fibre diet of legislation


High fibre food

In Canberra last week the Government provided a high fibre diet of legislation. The amended version of the racial vilification act was taken off the menu. In its place came legislation to deal with the threat that Australians fighting with terrorist groups overseas might terrorise Australia on return. This was complemented by legislation enabling the government to retain data in order to counter terrorist threats.

The Prime Minister made some attempt to draw a thread through these different bills.  Acknowledging the strength both of support in his own party for watering down the Racial Vilification Bill and of opposition from ethnic and other minority groups, he explained that he was withdrawing the Bill in order to promote unity among Australians in resisting terrorism. He wanted all to get on board Team Australia.

This legislative flurry was all very messy. Public opposition to the amendments to the Racial Vilification Bill ran broad and deep. Proposed to further free speech, they were seen to legitimise bigotry. The legislation to deal with the threat of terrorism, which included such divisive elements as the reversal of the presumption of innocence and preventative detention, allowed minimal time for public discussion. The proposal to collect electronic data was evidently not shown to the Minister for Communications before its announcement. 

All these decisions smelled of the haste and ad hocery that have characterised this government, as they did the previous Labor administrations. This is perhaps understandable because even legislation carefully crafted after extensive thought and consultation is likely to be torn to pieces in the Senate.

A more concerning quality of the legislation was that it showed few signs of reflection on what kind of a society we want to create, and how far particular legislation will help do so. The arguments for legislation are based on abstractions such as free speech and terrorism. They are not supported by sustained reflection on the way in which human beings interact, and whether the legislation will enhance or weaken respect for human dignity. Even the metaphor of Team Australia invited barracking, not reflection. It has generated fear and loathing of Muslims and of Islam. To ethnic communities the linkage of the racial vilification legislation with community cohesion looked less like an olive branch than payback. 

There is more to speech than freedom. Any society relies on relationships between speakers and listeners that are marked by trust, accountability and care for truth.  These qualities need encouragement and sometimes sanction, as for example for lying under oath.  Irresponsible and vindictive words can do great harm.  People who have been disadvantaged and abused because of their race or religion may be damaged in their sense of self, their confidence and in their trust in society they vilified because of negative characteristics a speaker associates with their race.

Societies need symbols that express abhorrence of this kind of damaging speech. In extreme cases such as in denial of the Holocaust, laws may sometimes be appropriate symbols. Whether the original legislation against racial discrimination was the best symbol may be debated, but the legislation to amend it became a symbol of the right to abuse others with impunity. It was rightly resisted. 

The other two pieces of legislation, and the Prime Minister’s justification for dropping the racial vilification bill, are associated with terrorism. Terrorism is also an unhelpful abstraction. It encourages the indiscriminate association of immigrant groups and particular religious and groups with violent action, and encourages undiscriminating broad brush legislation that will exacerbate the situations the legislation was intended to address. 

If we describe the situation in terms of persons and their relationships, and not of ideology, it comes down to the fact a relatively small number of people are travelling overseas to fight in a civil conflict outside Australia. This poses the risk that when they return to Australia some will act violently. This needs addressing as a policing matter, one that perhaps may demand some limited now powers. It should not be dramatised as part of a war on terror.

The challenge is not new. Australians have often gone overseas to fight with other armies in other wars.  Australians have joined the French Foreign Legion, become mercenaries in Africa, fought in the Spanish Civil War and  joined revolutionary groups in Latin America and in Communist countries. The experience normally leaves people disillusioned with violence.  Of course, the risk has always existed that people returning from war, whether as soldiers in our own army or in some one else’s wars, will act violently in their own society. The risk has generally been managed competently.

The added risk in the case of those going to fight in Syria and Iraq is that they will accept the ideology of the group they fight with and will target its enemies in their home nation. That needs to be taken seriously. But the roots of that alienation usually lie in earlier experiences of alienation. These too need to be addressed.  But the more indiscriminate the response and the greater the deprivation of ordinary human rights, the more likely it is that people will be alienated. 

High fibre diets have their uses. But societies do not thrive on high fibre alone.  

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Federal Government, free speech, terrorism, racial discrimination, legislation



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Existing comments

When the human mind evolved slowly through a long succession of humanoids, it was, and to some extent still is, immersed in many non-rational instinctive and emotional influences. Neonates initially assume they are the centre of the universe, and many, as they grow, still retain the attitude, "My way or the highway". This attitude is particularly prevalent in religions, whether Theistic, Deistic or Atheistic. Failure to realise that 'others' are often really responding to what they think is the only path to Goodness and Truth is the cause of much of the strife between religions and communities. If we all accept that God is calling everyone along different paths, we have a basis on which to build tolerance, acceptance, and cooperation.

Robert Liddy | 14 August 2014  

Keep at it Andrew, someone has to be the conscience of the nation when the ruling party obviously has none.

Peter Sellick | 14 August 2014  

Andrew Hamilton - I am voting for you as our next head of state! Your wisdom benefits us all. You encourage us to think beyond the busyness of civil life to view what is important. Keep sharing your thoughts!

John Faulkner | 15 August 2014  

The Holocaust is history, so are the Crusades, as are the times of the Inquisition . One would think we as humans have learnt from those sad events. Politics are cruel at times but when educated politicians behave as some of ours are doing the opposite is the truth, compered to many other countries and societies we here in Australia are truly blessed but our politicians are turning our country into a place that many of us older citizens do not like.

Clem Schaper | 15 August 2014  

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