Director Tim Andrews of the ATA and MyChoice Director, Satyajeet ‘Satya’ Marar appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights on the 1st of February to support the repeal of 18C. Satya summed up the ATA’s position in his opening remarks:
‘Firstly ... it contradicts freedom of speech, which is a crucial value to our Western liberal democracy; secondly … it unfairly punishes those who hold divisive political opinions … rather than doing what it is intended to, which is to protect minorities from racial abuse; and, thirdly, it is largely redundant because it operates alongside other laws we do have at a federal and state level that pertain to harassment, intimidation and abuse, [including] offensive language laws.’
Tim and Satya made it clear that the wording of the section is ‘highly subjective’, as it includes phrases such as ‘likely … to offend, insult [or] humiliate.’ Tim Andrews noted that the problem with such subjective language was that the terms placed ‘undue constraint on freedom of expression.’
Satya, who is of Indian background, came to this country as an immigrant. When asked about the stereotype of pro-18 C being ‘Anglo-Saxon white men’, he replied
‘… the problem with that sort of characterisation of, “You have to be an Anglo-Saxon white male to propose the change,”firstly, is patently false and, secondly, it feeds into a narrative of the other side. [This] is based on making certain assumptions and stereotypes about people.
I cannot speak for every ethnic minority here, but I would rather that sort of discussion happen and we actually dismantle and tear apart these negative viewpoints than simply have the government say, 'You cannot say that.”’
The ATA regards the existence of 18C is a win for stifling censorship, particularly for those with political agendas. The organisation believes that Australians are reasonably capable of discussing sensitive and controversial matters. The subjective nature of the words in the section encourages arguments about the semantics of divisive language and opinion, rather than constructing meaningful and productive debate about racism.
Keeping 18C in place may be driven by good intentions and a desire to protect minorities. However, its results, including the public backlash over the handling of the QUT case, suggest that this could ultimately backfire - allowing protectionists and ultra-nationalists, including those who may hold political office, to fuel the flames of real and increasingly rampant discrimination in Australia. In the hearing, Tim Andrews pointed out that the well-meaning intentions of the left have the counter-effect of ‘suppressing and pushing underground negative thoughts and racist views.’
The ATA accepts the need to combat discrimination. This would not be achieved by supporting 18C, but by encouraging public engagement, education and freedom of speech. The subjective wording of 18C, and the stereotyping of those advocating for its repeal, underline how the divisive nature of anti-free speech legislation exacerbates problems associated with engaging in meaningful discourse over ethnic groups in Australia.
‘Freedom of speech [is] the sunlight, [it is] the best disinfectant to defeat these sorts of views.’
Marija Pollic is a Research Associate at the Australian Taxpayers' Alliance