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Speech in Reply on Immigration and Section 18C

Speeches in Parliament
Nick McKim 1 Sep 2016

Before I concluded my previous contribution on this, I was speaking about the fact that the government's so-called border protection regime is crumbling before our eyes. I want to note in that context that that was effectively admitted by the immigration minister, Mr Dutton, who, in a media release less than two weeks ago, admitted that people smugglers are still targeting this country. We were told as a people that this cruel and inhumane policy, based on punitive, indefinite detention offshore and boat turn-backs, would actually deal with the issue of people putting their lives at risk at sea—that is, people seeking asylum—and also would smash the business model of the people smugglers. Well, neither of those things have come to pass. In other words, all the cruelty, all the inhumanity and all the people we are breaking on Manus and Nauru is for naught. This is a public policy failure almost without precedent in our country's history.

The election of four One Nation senators to this, the 45th Parliament, should give us all pause for reflection about the degradation of the public debate in this country, but particularly the institutional weakness of the Liberal Party under the leadership of not only John Howard but also now Malcolm Turnbull. Remember, in 1996 Senator Hanson was just disendorsed by the Liberal Party for expressing bigoted views about Australia's first people. Now, 20 years later, not only does Mr Turnbull fail to disendorse bigots and xenophobes, but he also placates them, promotes them and even gives them senior ministries.

Remember, in 2008 Minister Dutton infamously boycotted the apology to the stolen generation. Last year he was caught making a bigoted remark about Cape York before what he thought was a hilarious joke about Pacific Islanders losing their homes to rising sea levels. Since becoming minister, Mr Dutton infamously said that refugees are 'illiterate and innumerate' and would be stealing Australian jobs. He then doubled down on his hate speech by despicably trying to link refugees to terrorist attacks in Turkey and France. Let us call out Mr Dutton's remarks for what they are: turning your back on an apology to the stolen generation is bigotry; joking about 'Cape York time' is, at the very least, casual racism; calling refugees 'illiterate and innumerate' job thieves is xenophobia; and linking asylum seekers to terrorism is divisive bigotry that should have stopped over 50 years ago. But rather than demoting or disendorsing Mr Dutton for his repeated public expressions of racism, bigotry and xenophobia, Mr Turnbull has made him his immigration minister. Instead of lancing the boil of racism and bigotry, Mr Turnbull has allowed it to take root at the very heart of the Liberal Party.

Australia's immigration policy has been written by people who do not believe that asylum seekers are worthy of humane treatment, but instead that asylum seekers deserve arbitrary punishment and indefinite detention. Our current policy seeks to dehumanise those who seek safety in our country and seek the protection of our country. Our current policy seeks to do so in order to try to send a message to the rest of the world. The Australian Greens do not believe that we solve humanitarian crises by creating new ones. We will never accept the cruel and broken logic of locking people up indefinitely in punitively inhumane conditions and doing everything we can to break those people, tragically damaging many of them, potentially for the rest of their lives. We cannot help the displaced people of the world by turning boats around to meet an unknown fate at sea or to deliver them into the hands of those they are trying to flee. We, as Australians, can do better, and we must do better.

The far Right of the Liberal Party have not been placated by being able to write our offshore detention policies. Now they want undermine our legal protections against racial hatred and abuse. The campaign against 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, effectively to destroy the integrity of that act, is being led by a rabble of media bullies, confused racists and self-anointed freedom warriors, none of whom seem to understand how this law works, how it operates or how it has been interpreted by our courts.

Section 18C makes it unlawful to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person' on the basis of their 'race, colour or national or ethnic origin'. However, 18D of the same act creates widespread exemptions for artistic, political, scientific or academic communication, provided that that communication was done reasonably and in good faith. In other words: section 18D, which is ignored by those who want to destroy the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act almost as much as the rest of the country ignores the second verse of Advance Australia Fair, provides sweeping freedom of speech protections. If these people, these self-anointed defenders of free speech, really cared about free speech, they would be moving to repeal the secrecy provisions contained in section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act. But they will not do that, because they want the veil of secrecy over what is going on in Manus and Nauru and Christmas Island and in Australian detention centres maintained. If they really cared about freedom of speech, they would be pushing for reform of our defamation laws. But of course they will not do that, because they are almost exclusively used by big corporations and politics to sue other people to try to keep them quiet.

Opponents of 18C say that the words are vague or set too low a standard, but there are clear precedents that set out exactly what those words mean. As Justice Susan Kiefel said in a 2001 case:

… offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate [are] profound and serious effects, not to be likened to mere slights.

On becoming Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott promised to change the law, with his Attorney-General, George Brandis, making his infamous claim that people do have the right to be bigots. Of course Mr Abbott eventually backed down, following an impassioned and united from religious and other groups in this country. But just like the racism and bigotry that they seek to encourage, the anti-18C campaign has reared its ugly head once again. Having apparently never read a Facebook comment thread, these self-styled modern day enlightenment thinkers of the IPA and their agents in this place—and there are many of them—claim that 18C is making Australians afraid to speak their minds. What utter, utter nonsense.

Even if 18C was a curb on freedom of speech, I ask this very simple question: what precisely is it that opponents of this section want to say or want to empower others to say that they cannot currently say without contravening that section? The only logical answer is that they want to either engage in or empower others to engage in racist hate speech. How much further do they want to go to poison our national conversation with abusive speech made in bad faith? The only answer is that they want to unleash more racism and bigotry. The Greens will not accept a weakening of the limited protections we do have against racial discrimination.

If we are serious about increasing freedom of expression in this country, then let us discuss the lack of diverse voices in our parliament and in much of the mainstream media. Let us talk about the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, between the very well off and the poor, and the disproportionate say that wealthy and corporate entities have in our political debate. Let us talk about the systemic racism and entrenched disadvantage that keeps many minority voices silent and out of the national debate. Let us talk about the massive secrecy that surrounds our appalling treatment of people seeking asylum, including section 42 of the Border Force Act, which means people speaking out about abuse in detention centres, if they work in those detention centres, face up to two years imprisonment for blowing the whistle. These draconian limitations act as strong disincentives for workers to make disclosures about breaches of human rights in detention centres for fear of conviction or imprisonment.

Those who seek to destroy the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act by moving legislation that seeks to remove the words 'offend' and 'insult' from that legislation have spectacularly failed to make the case. For them to style themselves as warriors in defence of freedom of speech not only ignores the widespread protections contained in section 18D, not only ignores all of the other much more impactful restraints on freedom of speech that we have in statues in this country, it also ignores the fundamental and obvious truth that freedom of speech, like almost every other right that we have as citizens, is not an absolute right and never should be an absolute right.

That is why Australia needs a bill of rights. We have codified at length and in many statutes in this place our responsibilities as citizens, and rightly so. We do have responsibilities as citizens, and it is the parliament's job to codify those responsibilities. But we have not, to any degree, attempted in a meaningful way to codify our rights as citizens—even some of the most basic human rights that every Australian would support and which every Australian, to a degree, takes for granted. It is time that we had a bill of rights in this country, and I say to members of this chamber and, through this chamber, to the Australian people that the Greens will be moving on this in this term of the parliament. We will be drafting a bill of rights for Australian citizen so that we can codify the rights that we have, and not just the responsibilities that we have as citizens. I very much look forward to that debate occurring in this place.

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