Senator Patrick Dodson on Repealing 18C

Thursday 24 Nov 2016

Senator DODSON (Western Australia) (10:04):  It is interesting that bigotry is back in favour. Back in 2014 when the Abbott government sought to repeal 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to allow for all sorts of things to travel under the guise of free speech, it was defeated. Labor will be opposed again to this particular amendment that has been proposed by Senator Leyonhjelm and others. At least Senator Leyonhjelm, as a libertarian, appears to be committing himself to a push because of principle, but I am not sure whether that is the case in relation to the Turnbull government. To me, it represents some weakness.

The bill that has been put forward by the members goes even further than the Abbot government ever did, trying to repeal part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act in its entirety. As I said, this is something the Labor Party could never support. We created this part of the act and we are proud of it. We will continue to defend it. Labor opposed the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act in 2014, and again we will oppose them in 2016.

We will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the communities across this country, which is something the people on the other side seem to forget. This is about human beings—people of different cultures who are Australians and who have all sorts of different ways of interpreting English. English has its own form of tyranny, and that tyranny is what causes wars, assaults, arguments and violence. The speakers who grow up with English have to understand that that is not the only frame of reference through which the world is interpreted.

There is no clear definition, it seems to me, of what constitutes whiteness and the culture of whiteness. We talk of all sorts of other people that make up the Australian nation. There are Chinese, Indians, Lebanese and Africans—all sorts of people. They are part of the Australian population and bring with their cultures a richness to this nation. Instead of us moving in a way to accept and appropriate the better things of their cultures, we seek to continuously divide and cerate ways to sustain divisions and sustain the denigration of our fellow Australians.

There is nothing wrong with freedom, particularly if you are from the ruling class. There is a hell of a lot wrong with freedom if you have to battle to experience it—if you have to fight for it. I was born before the 1967 referendum, when we were not even counted in the census of this country as Aboriginal people and when this government did not have any power to make laws for Aboriginal people because we were excluded by the crafters of our Constitution in 1901. The whole battle for recognition and for freedom to enjoy the basics of being a citizen in this nation had to be fought for by black and white Australians: Jessie Street, Faith Bandler and many others.

What I see today is the ideological creep back to bigotry and to racism. It is fine if you sit in some leafy suburb and never rub shoulders with people who are battling to interpret and navigate their way through modernity in this land of Australia, with its highly-sophisticated culture and its complexities of protocols and procedures and social ethos. We have to understand that today is not the day to be changing this section of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is not the day. We see every night on the news the bigotry, the racism, the hatred and the killings that take place in the Middle East, borne out by different interpretations that people extract from words. We only have to look to Indonesia—just recently, the President was coming here to Australia and he had to curtail his trip because of the alleged words used by one of the governors that offended sections of the community. And that matter is still afoot.

So words do matter, and how we use words is critical in the way we go about our business and in the way we go about our communication. Have no doubt that racism is something that is not growing wild out there in the fields; it is actually tended in a flower box sitting on the window sills of flats and houses, and that matter is something that we as all Australians should be working to get rid of so that the freedom that is spoken about by Senator Leyonhjelm can in fact be enjoyed by all citizens.

We have not seen that. If we watched the news last night our colleague the Hon. Anne Aly, in the other place, was receiving death threats because of the stupidity of language used by one of our ministers to excite some lunatic in this society to threaten violence and death to her and her family. This is what words do. It is all very well in a debating class in the university; there is no freedom out there in the mainstream when you do not understand and comprehend the difference between debate and prejudice—when you do not understand being subjugated to racist taunts and to denigration.

As I said, we do not debate the definition of 'whiteness' or the culture of whiteness—and nor should we. But there is something that we need to pull ourselves up on, and that is the age-old reality of what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone else who is different, who is diverse and who has the richness of their own culture—when we talk about them, when we write about them and when we print things in relation to them.

Freedom is a very treasured thing, and it starts with defending, as has been said in an ideological sense, the rights of people. But with rights come responsibilities, and in a complex, multicultural society let's stress also the responsibility to note that other Australians do not see things entirely the way that we might from a Eurocentric position, or from an Anglo-Celtic background or from a sense of tradition and culture and politics.

So it is important, when we are debating these matters, to understand that many Australians are not sitting in the chamber. They are listening to this chamber and they are taking the leadership of this chamber as the litmus test of what this nation stands for. If this nation cannot stand up for the weakest, the poorest and those who are most vulnerable because of their race, their ethnicity or their beliefs, then we have become a very sad replication of what democracy is about.  There is no need that this particular amendment. There has been over a 20 year period where this has operated substantially to the benefit of our nation. The defences available under 18 D are clear and of their not only to facilitate the treatment speech that people wish to exercise and the freedom of expression, but also to give an indication of what is not permissible and how it may be adjudicated by a court if it has to go to court and cannot be dealt with in an arbitration. Labor is not going to be supporting this amendment and, certainly, any future amendments to this particular section of the Racial Discrimination Act. 

The tragic death of Miss Dhu