Street art of an Aboriginal flag

Turnbull Government denies Indigenous people’s freedom of speech over section 18C

The Turnbull Government is silencing the freedom of speech of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, said Amnesty International, as the organisation made a submission to the Senate Committee inquiry into a Bill to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

In an affront to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, no Indigenous representatives or organisations were allowed to speak at the last minute hearing into the controversial Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 on Friday. Despite the Aboriginal Legal Service being present, the ALS was literally silenced from speaking about a Bill that would lead to more racism being directed towards the community it advocates for.

The Turnbull Government has also showed unusual haste in rushing through the Bill’s committee process, allowing a mere three days for the Australian people and civil society to make written submissions. While the Government has given no explanation for this haste, the effect has been to exclude some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations from being able to comment on a Bill that, if passed, would greatly impact upon their communities.

Voices silenced

“At the beginning of his term, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on the Government to do things with Aboriginal people and not to them. Yet now we’re seeing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices silenced when they try to speak out against laws that would bring more racism onto their communities,” said Roxanne Moore, Indigenous Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia.

“Prime Minister Turnbull must listen to those who would most suffer from any changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. The changes before parliament would give a green light to racism, which is devastating for people’s mental health, for participation in education and employment, and for their physical safety. It is vital that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are part of this conversation,” said Roxanne Moore.

No changes recommended

Amnesty International’s submission noted that the bipartisan Freedom of Speech Inquiry, which received thousands of submissions, did not recommend any changes to sections 18C and 18D.

Amnesty International opposes the proposed amendments to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which removes the words “offend, insult, humiliate” and substitutes them with “harass.”

The proposed new standard of “reasonableness” is also of concern, as it states that a reasonable person is a member of the general Australian community, rather than a member of the group experiencing racism. These changes will weaken the current legal protections which exist against racial vilification in Australia.