Swanson Street & the Racial Discrimination Act

Walking through the lower reaches of Swanson street towards Flinders Street Station is an interaction with the cultural vibrancy and underbelly of Melbourne – a interweaving of Melbourne’s communities of lack and abundance, multi and mono-culturalism, illustrating their complex and sometimes unsubtle relationships.

These interactions of Big Issue vendors, tourists, shoppers and commuters can led to telling observational moments.

Yesterday while walking through the busy weekend throng of humanity near the transportation hub of Flinders Street Station a drunken individual abused an Aboriginal man sitting near entrance to the lower Swanson Street McDonalds.

” Piss off you N****R, go back to where you came from.”

Perhaps the incident and the use of the word ‘n****r’ could be dismissed under the guise the ‘gentleman’ in question was drunk  but in reality there is no excuse for any form of racist language.

And using the term “go back to where you come from” is  redundant when spoken to a member of Australia’s indigenous people. Where exactly is this Aboriginal man meant to go to?

Racial abuse in Australia brings up complex issues of belonging and ownership within the ‘lucky country ‘ which is potentially about to take on new forms as the Liberal Coalition government reviews key sections (sections 18B -E) of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Under the proposed changes to the act (as covered in the SMH), led by Attorney General  George Brandis,  it looks likely that it will no longer be unlawful to ”offend, insult and humiliate” someone because of their race, colour or ethnic origin while making it illegal to incite hatred or intimidate. On face value these changes seem contradictory or far more allowing of hate based speech against race unless it is extreme.

How are law enforcement meant to police legal racially skewed language while making the judgment that it may or may not be being used to incite hatred or intimidation when the language itself comes from a place of hatred and intimidation? It is a net with very large holes. It is understandable that numbers of ethnic groups have raised concerns with the government over the proposed legislative changes.

But what is the real solution to addressing racially based hatred or how does government limit the use of hateful language in order to engineer an aspirational societal change? Or is that even what the proposed legislation changes are trying to achieve? Are the changes an issue of  free speech? Or are the legislative changes a complicit acceptance of the prevalence of racism in Australia and a reflection that it is too difficult to address through law except in extreme cases such as the 2005 Cronulla race riots?

 Australian Guardian contributor Antony Loewenstein, who supports aspects of the proposed changes from a free speech perspective writes;

  “I share some of the concerns of learned law experts, such as Andrew Lynch, a director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the  University of NSW, who writes in the Melbourne Age that the government has a wilful blindness to the profound power disparity between those individuals or groups who may be offended or hurt by hate speech and those most likely to be using them (such as media personalities or politicians). It’s a position utterly lost on cocooned editorial writers and also on columnist Andrew Bolt, who this week praised his ability to receive an apology for hurt feelings, forgetting that his requests come with the power of the massive corporation behind him. Bolt is neither a fair arbiter of how the law should work in relation to hateful speech, nor in a position to understand the awful effect that verbal abuse can have on an Aboriginal, refugee, Jew, Muslim, or Greek.”

If the government’s justification for changing the Racial Discrimination Act is about free speech, what is it exactly they want speech to be free to do? As going on the current proposed changes it is possible to argue, as Loewenstein does later in his column, that the major backers of the freedom to use racially charged language as part of free speech principles are all white, privileged and male.  So why do people of cultural and societal privilege need to legimitise language that rarely affects them except if they are caught out using it?

A poll carried out by Fairfax  in March this year indicated that 78 per cent of  2242 respondents thought that the current Racial Discrimination Act does not limit free speech.

Debates about the use of racially based  language and the need to protect those whom are the most common recipients of it are complex and necessary. But legislative moves to remove protections of those vulnerable to racist language while potentially protecting the users of racially based hate speech through the guise of free speech seems counter intuitive.






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