BRISBANE archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission has called on the Federal Government to withdraw its proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.
The commission has joined with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and ethnic community organisations who have expressed concerns about amendments proposed by Attorney-General Senator George Brandis.
Brisbane priest Fr Gerry Hefferan, who was full-time chaplain to the Indigenous communities in Brisbane archdiocese from 1984-90 and priest assisting in that ministry since, has written to Prime Minister Tony Abbott in opposition to the proposed changes.
“Over the last 30 years there have been significant advances in relationships between our Indigenous Australians and other Australians, and between newly arrived Australians and other Australians. At the same time there have been crises,” Fr Hefferan wrote in his letter.
“The RDA has offered protections for those relationships to develop and mature.
“Having worked at grassroots level, I can understand the fear of many Australians, engendered by the proposed changes to the RDA.
“I ask your Government to cancel the proposed changes to the RDA, and keep the protections already in place.”
The CJPC surveyed the concerns being expressed publicly by these groups around the country, but took particular note of the views of the members of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group in forming its submission on the amendments.
The proposed legislation would repeal Section 18C which currently makes it unlawful for someone to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate and intimidate” a person or group of people.
Senator Brandis, in announcing the Federal Government party room’s approval of the proposed reforms, said the changes would “strengthen the act’s protections against racism, while at the same time removing provisions which unreasonably limit freedom of speech”.
“I have always said that freedom of speech and the need to protect people from racial vilification are not inconsistent objectives,” he said.
CJPC executive officer Peter Arndt said the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group was unanimous in its opposition to the proposed amendments.
“Members of our advisory group are horrified that these proposed changes would allow people to make deeply hurtful and humiliating racist comments,” Mr Arndt said.
“While the (Federal) Government says that its amendments will protect people against racial vilification, the amendments allow people to use racist hate speech in so many public situations without any right for people who take offence at the hate speech to take action under the law.
“The protection against racist hate speech and vilification is effectively eliminated in so many situations.”
An Aboriginal member of the Justice and Peace Commission David Miller said he feared the consequences of the changes if they were introduced.
“Aboriginal people have suffered so much hurt and psychological damage over many years because of racist attitudes and hateful, demeaning racist comments,” Mr Miller said.
“We do not want the Government giving a green light to public racist hate speech.”
Archdiocesan Murri Ministry Team co-ordinator Ravina Waldren said limits on freedom of expression should remain when it came to racial vilification.
“We have a right to be protected from the insulting, humiliating racist speech of other people just as people have a right to be protected from defamation by others,” Ms Waldren said.
The CJPC’s submission urges the government to consult widely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and ethnic community organisations about what changes would improve the operation of racial vilification laws without watering down the existing protections against vilification contained in the laws.