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Race debate leaves minorities more vulnerable than ever before

The recent debate on Australia’s racial discrimination laws, particularly in relation to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, has some minority communities feeling more vulnerable than ever before.

Vulneribility leading to unification

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Chief Executive Vic Alhadeff told The Point Magazine, that although Australia’s diversity was thriving, minority communities still need protection.

“We live in a society where over two hundred cultures and traditions live overwhelmingly at peace with each other. There will unfortunately always be bigots at the edges, which makes protection against them important.”

Alhadeff, who is part of a coalition of 30 community organisations seeking to outlaw the promotion of violence on the basis of race, religion, gender, and sexuality, said the recent debate around anti-discrimination legislation has united a diverse group of minority communities seeking protection from the law.

“The overwhelming majority of Australians understand and endorse the importance of legal protection against racial hatred,” he said.

He said there are deep feelings on this issue in minority communities. 

“One incident of racism or discrimination is one incident too many,” he said. 

Advocate and protect

Democracy in Colour describes itself as Australia’s first national racial justice advocacy organisation led by people of colour. Democracy in Colour aims to run campaigns to tackle structural racism and undertake ‘rapid response’ work to hold political, cultural and corporate leaders to account on the things they say and do on race.

Founder and National Director, Tim Lo Surdo, told The Point Magazine the debate around anti-discrimination laws has nothing to do with free speech.

“This ‘debate’ was never about ‘free speech’... Let’s be clear: the advocates for weakening our race hate laws - overwhelmingly wealthy, white conservatives - are already powerful participants in public debate. They have no problem being heard. This debate is about removing any impediment to their ongoing ability to attack vulnerable communities who look different to them, have different cultural customs or practice a different religion.”

Lo Surdo said the law wasn’t the only institutional structure that fails to advocate and protect diverse communities.

“The real threats to freedom of speech – our questionable libel system, the scarcity of media diversity, the wildly disproportionate concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few - are never addressed by these self-styled ‘free speech’ champions. Case in point: one of the biggest lobbyists for changes to 18C, News Corp, control more than 70% of daily sales in our newspaper market. How’s that for freedom of speech?” he said.

However, Simon Breheny, Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs, told The Point Magazine the law was already sufficient in protecting minority communities from discrimination. 

A good record

“18C is more to protect people against discrimination, but if that means offending people, that goes too far in restricting freedom of speech. For more serious cases like intimidation or harassment or being attacked whether it is based on race or any other characteristic then there are real measures they can take. They should turn to police and have an investigation conducted, there is protection there…One of the issues we have in this debate is that people forget what laws are on the books and there have been hundreds of legislations passed in relation to these matters.”

Breheny believes Australia has a good record of its treatment to minority communities and cases of racism are scarce. 

“There’s an assumption that there’s a blatant racism that is waiting to be unleashed. That just isn’t really grounded in reality. Australians are accepting and tolerant and welcoming to new migrants and are open to groups that have been coming into Australia for many years now. The reason as to why there are cases of racism and subjects of news stories is because they are unique and so rare in Australia so they make the news,” he said.

He said Australia is a democracy and robust debate is part of the process and it’s a collective responsibility to combat racism.

“It’s up to us, individuals and civil society. The way we do that is calling out ideas we don’t agree with and pointing out bigoted views. There will always be ideas that offend or insult us and rather than turning to government or the Human Rights Commission, it’s on us to handle it and there’s no way to change people’s minds then to present arguments and evidence to disapprove their view. Taking them to court doesn’t change someone’s mind. It’s about combatting ideas that we know to be abhorrent and racism is squarely in that category”.

The Point

The recent debate on Australia’s racial discrimination laws has some minority communities feeling more vulnerable than ever before.

Author Note

Image: Li Tsion Soon

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