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:
one thing I really enjoy recalling is that RDA laws only became a thing after Indigenous people won a federal court case against Bolt
— Fatima Measham (@foomeister) March 20, 2017
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.
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:
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.
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.