The Australian

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.

 

 

ASIO and B.A. Santamaria: Duelling Anti-Communisms

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The Australian has had a love-in this week with Catholic anti-communist B.A. Santamaria, with pieces by Tony Abbott and Gerard Henderson celebrating Santamaria’s anti-communist crusade inside and outside the Australian labour movement since the 1940s, and Greg Sheridan disclosing how his work inside the National Civic Council led him to crosspaths with ASIO and conduct anti-communist mischief in the student movement in the 1970s. Sheridan wrote this week:

The NCC always had some kind of relationship with ASIO. ASIO studied the communists for several reasons. Many communist groups received money from the Soviet Union and other foreign governments. Some used violence for political purposes. Some facilitated espionage. ASIO got information from the NCC and vice versa. So there was always a clandestine, secretive, slightly exotic air about the NCC.

However, from these National Archives files from ASIO’s monitoring of the NCC from 1973 to 1976, the relationship between ASIO and the NCC was much more fraught than Sheridan would suggest. In a 1972 report, ASIO complained that Santamaria continually made links between the ACTU’s Bob Hawke and the Communist Party of Australia’s Laurie Carmichael, although no link seemed to be there. The report says, ‘There appears to be no reason or justification for this, other than to smear HAWKE by association.’ In the same report, ASIO described Santamaria’s description of the involvement of ‘the Kremlin’ in the affairs of the Australian labour movement as bordering on the conspiratorial, and akin to the rantings of the anti-semitic League of Rights. This section of the report states:

The second point, which alleges coalition now of the “Communists” and “monopolistic employers”, is perilously close to the League of Rights – Eric BUTLER allegation that a conspiracy links the Pentagon and the Kremlin. The only difference is that the League sees the conspiracy as Jewish and the NCC as Communist-Capitalist. Mr. SANTAMARIA does  not bother to explain exactly what the “communist union bosses”  and “cynical capitalist employers”  have in common that leads them to agree on squeezing “small businesses” and the “lowest paid workers”.

The report concludes:

If the NCC’s analyses continue to develop along the lines of SANTAMARIA’s second point, one may have to consult a political pathologist, or even a psychologist, for an adequate explanation.

Furthermore, a February 1973 minute wrote that ASIO was ‘competing with the NCC in interpreting to Government and the public, the nature and extent of Communist influence in Australia’ and depending on government priorities could be considered a ‘subversive’ organisation. The minute pointed two specific areas where the NCC was worthy of ASIO’s interest:

(1) Undeclared NC members penetrating sensitive areas of Government service with consequent detriment to official secrecy.

(2) The use of such information by the NCC to embarrass or thwart Government, for example, in such a situation as Mr. SANTAMARIA’s recent visit to Saigon as a guest of Brigadier SERONG where he addressed a military academy and urged disregard of U.S. and Australian policy re the cease fire.

However the minute concluded:

The nature of their political attitudes and objectives, whether judged extreme by some, or commendable by others, would not, I believe, justify security attention in a democratic society.

Although we know from this file that ASIO continued monitoring the NCC for at least the next three years.

The file also includes some documents relating to the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security held between 1974 and 1979 by Justice Hope (after the infamous raid on ASIO by Labor Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in 1973). This admits that ASIO assisted Santamaria and the NCC at some stage, but also notes that the NCC was an organisation of interest to ASIO (with a suggestion that ASIO impeded its activities at times as well). However these documents don’t reveal what the relationship between ASIO and the NCC was during the 1970s (beyond the one-way internal reports of the early 1970s).

One of the primary goals of ASIO was to combat communist subversion in Australia, a goal also held by Santamaria’s Democratic Labor Party and the NCC. While both pursued this goal and there was collusion between the two organisations at times, it is important to recognise that both organisations also had wider agendas and their anti-communisms were not exactly the same. While not having too much faith in the opinions of ASIO during the 1970s, a read of this file indicates that ASIO were wary of the claims being made by Santamaria and the NCC and saw them as worthy of monitoring because it was unclear what the wider agenda of the NCC was and there was also suspicion of the Council’s semi-clandestine operative framework.

We know that ASIO started monitoring the NCC in 1963 and it is reasonable to assume that they kept monitoring after 1976. The NCC flirted with the edges of democracy and were, at times, judged to be involved in subversive and anti-democratic activities within the labour movement. Because they shared an anti-communist agenda with ASIO, the surveillance of this secretive organisation by the Australian security services was limited, but it is very apparent that Sanatmaria, the DLP and the NCC were not the beacons of democracy that Abbott, Sheridan and Henderson suggest in the pages of the Murdoch press this week.

Maybe it is worth applying for an FOI request for any ASIO files on the NCC from 1976 to 1985?