Not that long ago, if you entered the terms “Jew” and “Australia” into one particularly ubiquitous search engine, the first links to appear were to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other antisemitic conspiracy theories.
When the company which ran the search engine was informed, its answer, in summary was “is there a law against it?”
Morality wasn’t an issue, defamation of an identifiable section of humanity wasn’t an issue, credibility was not an issue – but the law was.
For many years a woman spent hours each week distributing anti-Jewish leaflets, books and cassettes – under car windscreens, in letter boxes at private homes, at weekend markets.
Countless people asked her to stop, but when it came to those in authority acting, the question was “Is there a law against it?” Without laws in place, she simply carried on for years.
From a neo-Nazi gang in one city vilifying Africans and Asians, to groups spreading propaganda and bigotry against Indigenous Australians, to Nazi apologists promoting denial of the Holocaust, to organisations preaching racist prejudice and hatred under the cover of religious belief – some Australians harassed, bullied, threatened, intimidated and frightened other Australians. That is, until the enacting of a law (which was in fact in place when the search engine issue arose).
That law, section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act, established community standards and gave recourse to people when bigots diminished the quality of their lives.
In operation for more almost 18 years, it has been largely uncontroversial, and despite concerns expressed at the time it was adopted, very few individuals have had their freedoms restricted in any way.
The consequences, in nearly every case, have been that an individual found to be acting in breach of the law has simply been told to desist.
One individual, who was found by a Court to have not followed simple and hardly onerous directives, was jailed – not for racism but for contempt of court.
In a single case, which was unique on a number of levels, a judgement resulted in controversy.
That case gave momentum to some, including those who seem to place greater emphasis on the rights of perpetrators than victims, calling for the legislation to be abolished.
Others, including strong supporters of the concept of human rights protections, agreed that a review of the law, potentially leading to revisions, was appropriate and desirable.
I have been a complainant in a number of cases and welcome the opportunity to participate in ongoing debate of 18C’s merits.
The first case involved the publication of overtly antisemitic commentary in a Sydney Arabic language newspaper, resulting in the publication of articles on why arguments rooted in antisemitism must be rejected and on how Jews and Arabs should work together against prejudice.
The next case led to findings that the aforementioned leafleteer was acting unlawfully and she ceased her activity.
An Adelaide man who put online, and promoted, material denying that the Nazi Genocide occurred, claiming that the Talmud was a corrupting influence and alleging that the Bolshevik revolution had been, in effect, a Jewish takeover of Russia, was also judged to have been acting unlawfully.
Other cases concerned a person publishing material in the newspaper of a small political party alleging Jews created the internet to corrupt the youth of the world via pornography and to control the flow of news and information and an esoteric, small Christian group which claimed the promotion of antisemitism was part of their faith. These saw courts determine that the promotion of hate material was the determining fact, not the excuses claimed for doing so.
In all cases, the quality of life of targets of racism had been diminished and until there was “a law against it” these victims had no recourse and, worse, a belief by victims that racism was socially acceptable in Australia.
If and when this law is reviewed, it is imperative that the victims of racism, and their rights, remain the central concern in the minds of decision-makers.