Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: The ABCs of 18C

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Allon Lee


During November and December, members of the Australian Jewish community engaged in robust debate in the mainstream media over the pros and cons of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

In the Spectator Australia (Nov. 12) Australian Jewish News publisher Robert Magid argued that "for anti-Semitism and section 18C, it is an impotent tool."

In his opinion, "today's anti-Semites don't attack Jews directly, but by association. Israel is a fascist, apartheid regime, which crucifies Palestinian children in prisons; sends doctors to natural disaster zones to harvest body parts... and steals Palestinian land. And anyone who supports this Nazi regime is a collaborator. None of this falls foul of section 18C."

In fact, 18C has been successfully used in a number of cases to stop the systematic distribution of antisemitic literature that denigrated all Jews as a corrupting influence in Australia.

Elsewhere, Institute of Public Affairs analyst Gideon Rozner, who is seeking Victorian Liberal party pre-selection, accused federal Labor leader Bill Shorten of "stir[ring] up racial and religious tensions for...political purposes" in trying to "mobilise ethnic and religious communities against increasingly likely changes to Section 18C."

Rozner claimed that Shorten "doesn't understand... that many Jewish Australians... share the same concerns about 18C as an increasing number of people in the wider community. Specifically, that banning forms of expression merely because they are ‘insulting' or ‘offensive' is inherently incompatible with the right to free speech."

As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Rozner said the law against the "insulting of religious communities" that existed in Weimar Germany in the 1930s was "rigorously enforced, including against prominent Nazis like Joseph Goebbels" but actually increased support for Nazis, Herald Sun (Dec. 2).

Responding in the Herald Sun (Dec. 12) AIJAC Executive-Director Colin Rubenstein argued that "freedom of speech is not an absolute right in Australia nor in other similar liberal democracies - even if some voices... pretend otherwise."

He said, "the Australian Law Reform Commission has identified at least nine categories of federal and state laws that limit or outlaw expression in different contexts" - including sedition, treason, counter-terrorism, government secrecy, contempt, defamation, media and communications, intellectual property, advertising laws, and laws against perjury and lying to authorities.
"Not even the most vehement [free speech] partisans...argue... [for abolishing] these laws... because...even they do not believe free speech is an absolute right which no other right or public interest should ever override," he wrote.

Rubenstein dismissed Rozner's comparison of 18C to Weimar laws as "fatuous", suggesting we "should compare 18C to the similar antiracial vilification laws that exist in almost every liberal democracy around the world - New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Holland, and, not least, Israel...our law is not only less severe than in most other democracies, but also has unusually expansive provisions protecting free speech and democratic debate."

He also questioned Rozner's view that many Jews back his position, saying that Australia's Jewish community "along with most other groups in multicultural Australia - has consistently advocated for the retention of section 18C," as confirmed by recent decisions of the peak community body, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Discussing the federal government's announcement of an inquiry into 18C, AIJAC's Jeremy Jones stated on Sky News Australia (Nov. 20) "we see no reason why a law that has been in operation for 20 years can't be reexamined and found to be better."

He said a serious inquiry looking at free speech and 18C/18D "must look at all the laws, the whole context of free speech in Australia," which includes defamation, libel, truth in advertising laws, and "all the cases that have come before the courts and been subject to complaint."

Then the inquiry can assess "where it is getting it right, this is where it could be better, this is where it is getting it wrong and come out with recommendations for change, there's nothing that I am worried about at all because I have a lot of confidence that the law... fits very neatly in the Australian context of laws relating to speech."

Jones said he did not see a "huge groundswell" backing changing 18C, adding that, "in an adult society I think most of us would agree there should be consequences if your actions have an impact upon somebody else's life in a negative way."

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