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Better than bigotry

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 27 Aug 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:34):  I rise to reaffirm the support of the Australian Greens for Australia's Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in its current form. Over the last year, we have seen this federal government intent on weakening the act and removing restrictions on the damaging things people can say and do to other people on the basis of race. But we have also seen a resolute, united response across the Australian community-in all its diversity-and this wonderful response has now convinced the government to back down for the time being. I see that as a fundamental victory for decency in Australia. The Australian Greens are committed to standing with most Australians to keep this crucial piece of legislation intact.

Practically speaking, the much-debated section 18C provides protection from racially motivated hate speech and action-but, of course, this legislation means a great deal more than that. It is really about the kind of community we want to be. Do we want to be a welcoming and inclusive place that accepts and even celebrates our differences or do we want to be a community that is bigoted and divided? The Greens are clear about the kind of country we want to live in, and racially motivated hate speech and action is simply not a part of it.

The Australian community has been very clear too. Having fought off the government's attempts to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act, the Australian community has sent a loud and clear message. The majority of Australians-in letters, emails, petitions and polling and at events and marches-have said, 'It is not okay to be a bigot in modern-day Australia.'

Over the last year, I have met with people from across Australia who have shown me that the Racial Discrimination Act is not just a matter of words on paper. For many people, it is a living law that protects them from degrading and humiliating hate speech and behaviour, from wounding words that attack the very core of who they are-their heritage and their identity-and sometimes on a regular basis.

But as well as providing a means of righting a wrong it serves as an important signal from this parliament that this behaviour is not acceptable. Watering down our protections against racially motivated hate speech sends a damaging message to the community-and indeed to the world-that this kind of hate speech is acceptable in Australia. It is not.

While Attorney-General Brandis says we all have the right to be bigots, the rest of the community is making it clear that the Attorney-General does not speak for us. We do not appreciate the government's moves to support and protect conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt and his offensive, insulting, humiliating and intimidating remarks, as they were characterised by a Federal Court judge. I am not sure the Attorney-General expected such a significant public outcry. I am pretty sure he underestimated the way in which the Australian public values the Racial Discrimination Act and the protection it provides for all Australians-no matter who they are or where they have come from. But after receiving more than 5,000 submissions about the changes, most of which would have opposed them, I am sure the Attorney-General now has a better sense of how important this legislation is to so many Australians. I know I have been encouraged by the strength and depth of the community's response to the proposed changes. But we must remain vigilant.

Despite the government's backdown at this point, there are still those who will continue to push for a weakening of the Racial Discrimination Act, including Senator Cory Bernardi, Andrew Bolt, Tim Wilson, the Institute of Public Affairs and the hugely discredited, holocaust-denying Fredrick Toben. New ALP Senator Joe Bullock showed support for changes to the Racial Discrimination Act in his first speech, yesterday. According to media reports this morning, Senator Bullock would

... support lifting the ban on offending, insulting or humiliating people on racial grounds - if given the opportunity.

He may have that opportunity. South Australian Family First Senator Bob Day has vowed to revive the plan in a private senator's bill.

Today I implore every member of this parliament to treat decisions about the Racial Discrimination Act with a great deal of care-for our constituents, for the broader community, for cohesion and inclusivity and for the kind of country we want to be. We must always be asking the question: what kind of country we want to be? The vast majority of decent Australians have shown that they want to live in a country that is better than bigotry.

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