Liberals

Parliament’s current obsession with s18c

On ‘Harmony Day’ yesterday, the Turnbull government announced that it would seek to introduce legislation that would amend the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) to remove the words ‘insult’ or ‘offend’ from section 18c of the Act. Under these proposed changes, only racial ‘harassment’ or ‘intimidation’ would be prohibited.

To many, this seemed like a pet project of the conservative right of the Liberal Party and some right libertarians that had gained too much attention. A number of commentators pointed to the continued discussion of the s18c in the opinion pages of The Australian, as well as the columns of News Limited commentators like Andrew Bolt or the journal Quadrant. The amount of media space devoted to criticising s18c and the Australian Human Rights Commission (who enforce the Racial Discrimination Act) seems to most to be out of proportion with mainstream public opinion in Australia.

In response to yesterday’s announcement, Fatima Measham from the current affairs website Eureka Street commented:

This got me interested. How had the discourse surrounding s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act changed since Andrew Bolt was found to have contravened the Act in 2011?

In September 2011, Andrew Bolt was found by the Federal Court to have authored two columns that contravened s18c. In response, a number of those on the right of politics, as well as many in the media from the ‘centre’, complained about the verdict and proposed for the wording of the Act to be changed. In the lead up to the 2013 election, the Liberals inserted this policy proposal into their manifesto.

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With Andrew Bolt regarded as a close personal friend, Prime Minister Tony Abbott first floated changing the Act in 2014, but with significant resistance from ethnic minority organisations and other progressive groups, Abbott dropped this initiative.

But the issue didn’t go away. The Australian continued to campaign for the working of s18c to be changed. So did some within the Liberal Party, such as Senator Cory Bernardi, or Abbott once he returned to the backbench. And since Turnbull’s rapid decline in the opinion polls, the conservative right have been using the issue to criticise Turnbull and assert themselves, despite their numerical sparsity.

Using Parlinfo, I looked into how often had the issue been raised in Parliament since s18c came into effect in 1995, as part of the amendments to 1975 Act instigated by the Racial Hatred Act 1995 (Cth). And here are the results:

HoR Senate
1994 7 1
1995 0 2
1996 1 0
1997 0 0
1998 0 0
1999 0 0
2000 0 0
2001 0 0
2002 0 0
2003 0 0
2004 0 0
2005 0 0
2006 0 0
2007 0 0
2008 0 0
2009 0 0
2010 2 0
2011 0 0
2012 3 3
2013 8 2
2014 40 58
2015 33 20
2016 38 59
2017 58 20

As the above table shows, despite from an initial flurry in the mid-1990s (when the Racial Hatred Bill/Act was debated and passed), it was not until 2014 that the issue really becomes a topic of discussion in parliament. Discussions of the subject went down significantly in 2015, after Abbott dropped the issue, but was revived the following year, especially in the Senate – now home to a number of Senators on the political far right. The below graphic also illustrates the sudden rise in discussion of the issue since the Liberals have regained office.

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Even though the Racial Hatred Act was passed more than 20 years ago and s18c has been part of the Racial Discrimination Act framework since then, it was only in recent years that conservatives and right libertarians have taken up the issue. This is demonstrated by the discussion of the issue in Parliament.

A much broader analysis of how and how much the issue has been discussed in the media is needed, but that’s for another time.

 

 

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17 December, 1967: Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappears

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

Harold Holt had succeeded the long-serving Liberal Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1966 and won an election in November of the same year. Holt continued the commitment of Australian troops to Vietnam, introduced by Menzies in 1965, and this issue dominated Australian politics over the next decade. At the same time, the Holt government introduced several reforms that led to the eventual dismantlement of the ‘White Australia Policy’ over the next decade (eventually abolished by the incoming Whitlam government in 1973).

However Holt is probably most famous in Australia for his extraordinary disappearance on 17 December, 1967. On this day, he went swimming at Cheviot Beach on Mornington Peninsula, a beach he claimed he knew ‘like the back of his hand’. The tide was unusually high and conditions were, according to witnesses, not good for swimming. Despite this, Holt swam quite far out and eventually disappeared out of sight. Presumed drowned, his body has never been discovered.

Here is a digitised version of the official investigation and report into his death, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. And here is the obituary given in Parliament on its first day in session since his disappearance (March 1968).

There have been several conspiracy theories developed around Holt’s disappearance, with the most prominent one being that he was taken by a Chinese submarine. This theory was expounded by Anthony Grey in his book The Prime Minister Was A Spy.

In a moment of irony, the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre was built in Melbourne after his death.

Fairfax to students: ‘You silly young people. Don’t you know the sixties are over!’

How student protests were covered by the media in 1971

How student protests were covered by the media in 1971

Since the student protests that kicked off last Wednesday, Fairfax Media in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have run three comment pieces on how the students needed to drop the traditional mass street protest of the 1960s/1970s and employ ‘new’ tactics in the fight against higher education cuts. First there was Annabel Crabb, who wrote:

I’m just wondering why university students – who should be the most connected, educated, cutting-edge communicators in our country – are still protesting like it’s 1969… But in this magical new era of communication, there must be better ways of telling a story than “What Do We Want? No Fees! When Do We Want It? Now!”.

Then former Liberal Education Minister Amanda Vanstone complained:

Protests are, in my view, a good thing. They are a sign of the freedom we all enjoy. But what some protesters fail to understand is everyone else’s right to go about their business undisturbed. Sadly, the right to protest has become for all too many the right to ruin anyone else’s day just because they want to be on telly.

And then today, PR firm Hootville got some free publicity from The Age by releasing ‘advice’ they gave to the National Tertiary Education Union about how to combat the cuts. Number one piece of advice from this PR lot was:

1. 1968 is over – forget the violence

Intimidation, harassment and bullying is not going to help you persuade people to your cause. You’ve already donated Minister Pyne hours of free, easy media coverage.

A protest against higher education cuts in Brisbane last week

A protest against higher education cuts in Brisbane last week

There are really three things that really annoy me about these pieces, comparing the student protests now with those of the 1960s and 1970s.

1) This is a really reductionist idea of what forms of protests were employed during the 1960s and 1970s, instead relying on this popular stereotype of sixties’ protests involving marching, chanting and sitting down. A read of Sean Scalmer or Iain McIntyre (see his How to Make Trouble and Influence People website) shows that the history of protest in Australia has seen a diverse range of tactics used, with marching and chanting only one of many options.

2) The mainstream media has had a well-worn narrative that Generation Y is self-centred, individualistic and apolitical. The protests last week saw young people showing initiative and deep political concern – enough to mobilise several thousand onto the streets around Australia. While it is only one tactic in a broad spectrum of activism in the 21st century, congregating in public together demonstrates to those involved that they are not alone and proves the old adage, ‘in unity is strength’. Street demonstrations can give a critical mass to a movement much more than a bunch of disparate individuals getting involved in online campaigning – but it should be kept in mind that activism is not a zero sum game. It should’t be street marches or clicktivism, but street marches plus clicktivism.

3) Vanstone’s complaint that protests disrupt the business of other people, alongside Hootville’s call for student protestors to conform to the rules of conventional politics, overlook the purpose of protest. Protest is about breaking out of the boundaries of the conventional political sphere and challenging the status quo. If protests aren’t causing disruption, then they are not an effective political strategy. As Kurt Iveson wrote here, conforming to the mainstream political idea of ‘legitimate protest’ will push protest activity from the realm of direct action to the symbolic. For Iveson, the concept of ‘legitimate protest… rests on the liberal assumption that if protestors are given the opportunity to speak, this will be enough for them to be heard if they have a legitimate point to make.’

Of course, protest should be peaceful, but as history has shown, even when protestors are peaceful, the authorities can construe any form of protest as ‘potentially violent’, believing those who protest to be ‘thugs’. The real lesson that students should be taking from the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s is how the government, the police and the mainstream media have reacted to protest in Australia over the last forty years.

Liberals question relevancy of academic research

I just thought I’d mention this. A day after I wrote this post about questions of relevancy for academic research, the Liberals have announced that they would cut ARC funding for ‘wasteful’ projects. They identified several current ARC projects that they indicate would not attract similar funding if sought under an Abbott government. Both the academics identified and the ARC have responded critically to the Liberals’ most recent indulgence in anti-intellectualism.

Tomorrow we vote. I hope there is room for innovative academic research in the government’s thinking on Monday.