THE AUSTRALIAN – MARCH 18, 2014
THE frenetic game and tremendous atmosphere at the recent Sydney football derby, with Sydney FC triumphant over the Western Sydney Wanderers, were what I, and many other sports fans, would like to be our final memories of the game.
Instead, the revelations of racial and religious abuse directed at a classy and inspirational player, Ali Abbas, have dominated post-match discussion.
Racism is, unfortunately, a reality in contemporary Australia. The best means to redress it and provide recourse to the victims of racist intimidation and harassment is currently the subject of vigorous public debate. For more than 18 years, one of the options available to those innocent Australians who have found themselves targeted by bigots and bullies has been Section 18C of the Federal Racial Discrimination Act.
In all that time, precisely one adjudicated complaint has been the subject of public controversy. The law, in my opinion and that of so many involved in work to promote fairness, tolerance and community harmony, has made a good contribution towards building a more decent Australia.
In my capacity as a senior elected officer of the executive council of Australian Jewry, I was involved in a number of cases, all of which set precedents and helped define what is, and is not, acceptable to the Australian community.
Before the introduction of the law, a Tasmanian woman who had spent many hours distributing racist leaflets and cassettes and selling racist books and videos at markets had refused all supplications to stop harassing and vilifying members of minority groups.
When the law was introduced, she was instructed to cease her behaviour, which she did. Reports of racial incidents in her state dropped about 90 per cent.
Before the law, an Adelaide man employed a variety of platforms to propagate anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. After complaints under 18C his denial of the Nazis’ genocide was found to be unlawful.
The newspaper of a small political party in Queensland published an article alleging Jews were acting to destroy Australia’s moral fabric and to take over the economic and political system. Due to 18C, the writer was dropped by the paper and the party apologised.
An ubiquitous internet search engine was providing links to extreme racist, conspiracy-theory sites when users entered the terms “Jew” and “Australian”. After clear evidence was produced that the links were to pages in breach of 18C, the search engine corrected this anomaly.
A Sydney-based Arabic language newspaper republished items from Middle East sources that defamed Jews and Judaism, initially defending their action as being in the public’s interest.
After a complaint under 18C, and a conciliation, the paper apologised and published an article condemning racism and another calling on Jews and Arabs to work together in Australia’s interests.
Under the law as it stands, only a person who belongs to the group that has been vilified and harassed has the right to complain.
I am aware, nonetheless, of cases involving indigenous Australians and people of African and Asian backgrounds which were also resolved under 18C, yet would have festered without it.
18C has proven to be a means to have recalcitrant racists cease harassing others, of sending a message that bullying by bigots is unacceptable and providing a means for people to have their rights to live their lives free from harassment and intimidation protected.
Under other Australian laws, individuals who have been the victims of malice can take advantage of defamation laws to defend their reputation and social standing.
But when entire ethnic, national or racial minorities are depicted as immoral, corrupt and even existential enemies of Australia, the only recourse is 18C.
Under other Australian laws, a person cannot falsely claim a product for sale or a service to be provided will bring benefits to the purchaser.
But when false claims are made about individuals, 18C provides potential consumers of lies with the ability to judge the quality of descriptions of classes of people.
To take away or to diminish the provisions of 18C is to take away and diminish the confidence many Australians have that our society cares more about the victims of racism and the quality of life of targets of bullies than for the hateful, bigoted minority.
Jeremy Jones is director of international and of community affairs at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.