Malcolm Turnbull, If you want to ‘strengthen’ anti-vilification laws, here’s something you can do

Update 29 April 2017:

In early April, I wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis suggesting that, it they genuinely wanted to ‘strengthen’ Australia’s anti-vilification protections, they should introduce laws prohibiting vilification against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

In that letter, I included statistics from The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia Survey Results, Part 1: Verbal Harassment and Abuse which found that 74% of LGBTIQ Australians experienced homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic verbal abuse at some point in their lives, with 48% reporting anti-LGBTIQ harassment in the past 12 months alone.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Australian Government isn’t particularly interested in doing anything to address this epidemic of anti-LGBTI abuse – there is no LGBTI equivalent to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and, based on the response I received this week from the Attorney-General’s Department (see below), the Turnbull Government will not introduce one.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Government’s letter is the reference to ‘sexual harassment’ provisions within the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, as offering protections against anti-LGBTI vilification. The definition of sexual harassment under that legislation is as follows:

Section 28A

Meaning of sexual harassment

(1) For the purposes of this Division, a person sexually harasses another person (the person harassed) if:

(a) the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the person harassed; or

(b) engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed…

(2) In this section:

‘conduct of a sexual nature’ includes making a statement of a sexual nature to a person, or in the presence of a person, whether the statement is made orally or in writing.”

This definition, and its focus on ‘of a sexual nature’, means that while LGBTI people are protected against ‘sexual harassment’ under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, only a small fraction of the anti-LGBTI verbal abuse that is experienced by LGBTI Australians would be covered by this provision – the vast majority of harassment and abuse, including nearly all of the comments reported in The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia, would remain entirely legal.

Of course, given their ongoing refusal to pass marriage equality without a completely unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite, and the attacks on and dismantling of the Safe Schools program, it was always unlikely that the Turnbull Government would do anything substantive to tackle anti-LGBTIQ verbal harassment and abuse.

Still, now that they have been presented with the evidence, they can no longer claim that there is no problem with homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in Australia. They know it exists – they are simply choosing to ignore it.

Here is the full response from the Attorney-General’s Department:

27 April 2017

Dear Mr Lawrie

Thank you for your correspondent of 3 April 2017 to the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, regarding Commonwealth anti-vilification laws. Your letter was referred to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, as the matter falls within his portfolio. The Attorney-General has asked me to respond on his behalf.

The Australian Government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) prohibits discrimination on these grounds in a range of areas of public life.

The Sex Discrimination Act also prohibits sexual harassment in a number of areas of public life. Under the definition of sexual harassment, the circumstances to be taken into account include, but are not limited to, the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status of the person harassed.

Criminal laws in Australia generally prohibit conduct which threatens or results in harm to a person, regardless of the individual attributes of the victim.

The Australian Government considers these protections, in conjunction with other protections under Australian law, are appropriate in addressing the behaviour outlined in your letter.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to the attention of the Australian Government.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Director, Human Rights

Civil Law Unit

 

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Original Post:

 

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Monday 3 April 2017

Dear Prime Minister

Commonwealth Anti-Vilification Laws

I am writing to you about a subject that has preoccupied your Government in recent weeks: Commonwealth anti-vilification laws.

However, I do not wish to re-litigate the debate over your proposed amendments to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, especially now that those changes have been comprehensively rejected by the Senate (happily from my perspective, presumably less so from yours).

Instead, I wish to discuss an area where it appears that, at least based on your public statements, you and I agree.

Specifically, during the course of the debate around 18C, two key principles emerged from media releases and speeches made both by yourself, and by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis.

First, your Government believes that there is a place for legal protections against vilification.

This is apparent not just from the fact that you chose to try to amend section 18C, rather than repeal it (therefore acknowledging the overall legitimacy of anti-vilification laws), but also through your comments at the joint Press Conference on 21 March, announcing the changes:

“We are defending the law by making it clearer. We are defending Australians against racial vilification.”

And from the Attorney-General’s Second Reading Speech:

“I have always believed that there is no inconsistency whatever between effective, appropriately-worded racial vilification laws, and the robust defence of freedom of speech.”

Second, your Government believes that such legal protections against vilification should be ‘strong’.

Indeed, both you and your Attorney-General repeatedly claimed that the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 would strengthen existing vilification protections.

At your joint Press Conference you stated that “[W]e are announcing changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Commission legislation, which will strengthen the protection of Australians from racial vilification” and that it was time to “defend Australians with effective laws, clear laws, against racial vilification.”

The Attorney-General similarly claimed in his Second Reading Speech that the changes were being proposed “to strengthen its anti-vilification provisions.”

Taking you at your word(s) then, you both believe there is a place for anti-vilification laws, and that such laws should be strong and effective.

I agree with these two principles (even if we disagree on how they should be reflected in the Racial Discrimination Act).

Which is why, now that your changes to section 18C have been defeated, I write to suggest an additional way in which you can protect Australians against vilification: by introducing anti-vilification protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

As you would be aware, there is currently no Commonwealth protection against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Nor are there LGBTI anti-vilification protections under the laws of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia or the Northern Territory (meanwhile, the protections that exist under NSW law are overly-narrow, and fail to protect some parts of the community).

This leaves a significant proportion of Australia’s LGBTI communities without any legal protections against homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification.

Unfortunately, such vilification remains all-too-common in Australia.

In a survey that I conducted at the start of 2017, 74% of LGBTIQ respondents reported being subject to anti-LGBTIQ verbal abuse or harassment at some point during their lives[i].

Disturbingly, 48% of respondents reported that at least one instance of such abuse or harassment occurred during the last 12 months.

These figures were even higher for some sections of the LGBTIQ community:

  • 68.2% of trans respondents
  • 65% of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQ respondents, and
  • 74.5% of LGBTIQ respondents aged 24 or under

reported verbal abuse or harassment in the past 12 months alone.

I hope that you agree these rates of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic verbal abuse are simply unacceptable.

And if you are unconvinced by the raw numbers, then I suggest that you read the even rawer, and in some cases quite horrific, examples of anti-LGBTIQ harassment shared by the 1,672 people who took part in my survey (attached).

The challenge for you is that this abuse is happening on your watch.

If you genuinely believe there is a place for anti-vilification laws, and that such laws should be strong and effective, then I believe you should respond to this epidemic of anti-LGBTI verbal abuse and harassment with Commonwealth anti-vilification laws covering sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, on an equivalent basis to existing racial vilification protections.

After all, if racist vilification is considered so serious as to require legislative intervention, then there is no logical reason why homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification should not be similarly prohibited.

If you do not take action to address this issue, then by implication you are suggesting that you and your Government find anti-LGBTIQ vilification to be less offensive, and arguably more ‘acceptable’, than racial vilification.

In conclusion, I will return to another comment made by you at the joint Press Conference on 21 March:

“Ensuring Australians are protected from racial vilification, likewise, is part of that mutual respect of which I often speak, which is the foundation of our success as the greatest and most successful multicultural society in the world.”

My question to you is: do you believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians also deserve ‘mutual respect’?

If you do, then please take action to protect LGBTI Australians from the homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification that far-too-frequently mars our own participation in the country you currently lead.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Cc Senator the Hon George Brandis

Attorney-General

PO Box 6100

Senate

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Malcolm Turnbull Hands

Whether LGBTI Australians receive anti-vilification protections under Commonwealth law is now in Malcolm Turnbull’s hands.

Footnotes:

[i] For full results, see The State of Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia, Survey Results Part 1: Verbal Harassment and Abuse

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Malcolm Turnbull – ‘Mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’

When Malcolm Turnbull’s political career is finally over – and that could be sooner rather than later – it is likely that the ‘highlights’ package run by TV stations – which, based on his ‘achievements’ to date, will also be shorter rather than longer – will include at least a brief mention of his role as head of the unsuccessful ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1999 republic referendum.

 

The footage they will probably show will be his (in)famous description of John Howard as ‘the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart’.

 

Almost 18 years later, it is somewhat ironic that this description could just as easily be applied to Turnbull’s own stint as the country’s leader.

 

Despite coming to the top job with enormous public good will, amid widespread relief that Tony Abbott was no longer Prime Minister, just 18 months later he has seemingly squandered it all.

 

It is almost as if he consciously set about smashing the high hopes and expectations the public once held, as the modern, moderate Malcolm rapidly became traditional ‘Tory’ Turnbull.

 

We may not be ‘broken-hearted’ (that description always was a touch grandiose), but we have certainly been left disheartened, and deeply disillusioned, by a man who has sold out his principles across a wide range of issues – from climate change to marriage equality, and most things in between – merely to keep his place in The Lodge.

 

This past week it appears Malcolm’s stint as PM has officially reached its nadir. And this time it is a different quote about John Howard that springs to mind.

 

On both section 18C, and the postal plebiscite, the Turnbull Government has revealed itself to be ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’, which is how then Liberal Party President Shane Stone notoriously described the Howard Government in an internal memo in early 2001.

 

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The proposed reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which will make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race (or, as Attorney-General Brandis once admitted, ensure people ‘have the right to be bigots’), are nakedly ‘mean-spirited’.

 

The Liberal-National Government is seeking to undermine anti-vilification laws that have protected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, for more than two decades.

 

The entire justification for their unrelenting assault on section 18C is to simply repeat the word ‘freedom’ over and over again, and hope nobody notices that a largely homogeneous group of MPs and Senators, most of whom will never experience racism, are taking away protections from people who, depressingly, still need them.

 

The move to change the wording of section 18C, by replacing the words ‘offend, insult, humiliate’ with ‘harass’, is tricky, too.

 

Not just because the Prime Minister has tried, on multiple occasions, to describe this amendment as ‘strengthening’ anti-vilification laws (sorry, Prime Minister, we’re not that gullible).

 

But also because, on at least five separate occasions before the July 2016 federal election, Malcolm Turnbull said that his Government had no plans to change the Racial Discrimination Act.

 

Being confronted with this inconvenient history this week led Mr Turnbull to engage in this, frankly, extraordinary exchange:

 

“Journalist: But on backflips, you back flipped on 18C, you changed your mind on 18C. Don’t you agree this is what politicians do, they change their position?

 

Prime Minister: Again, I don’t accept that proposition at all.

 

Journalist: You said five times before the election that you wouldn’t change 18C and now you’re pushing through changes?

 

Prime Minister: What we said before the election was that we did not have any plans to change 18C and that was absolutely true. So again, as a guardian of the truth, you should be more careful with the language you attribute to me…”

 

‘Honest’ John Howard would be proud of that evasion. And it seems like the Australian electorate are the ones who need to be more careful, and not believe any future promises that Malcolm Turnbull might make.

 

Amending the wording of 18C is also the definition of a niche political issue, demonstrating that the Government is comprehensively out of touch with the concerns ordinary Australians.

 

It doesn’t take Einstein to realise most Australians are far more interested in health, education and employment – and increasingly, the cost of housing – than the supposed troubles of Andrew Bolt or (the late) Bill Leak.

 

Speaking of which, even Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce spoke against the proposals in the joint party room meeting on Tuesday (21 March), reportedly saying ‘the move to amend 18C is really dumb and it will lose the Coalition votes’.

 

Barnaby knows that this issue is not what John Howard called a ‘barbecue stopper’. For many people, if 18C came up at all it would most likely be in the context of wondering why the Turnbull Government is so obsessed by an issue that, as Treasurer Scott Morrison previously conceded, ‘doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour’.

 

Of course, that is not to say nobody is focused on, or affected by, this issue. For a significant minority, and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds, the changes to 18C are a threat to vital protections against the hate-speech that remains far-too-common.

 

And they have been making their voices heard, providing literally hundreds of submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee that considered this issue at the start of the year.

 

In the five days since these reforms were announced, there have also been joint statements against proposed changes to 18C by ‘[r]epresentatives from Greek, Armenian, Indigenous, Jewish, Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and Lebanese organisations.’

 

But the Turnbull Government is not listening to the millions of people who would be adversely affected by these new definitions.

 

Quite literally, in fact, as the Aboriginal Legal Service discovered when it attempted to provide evidence to the Senate Inquiry into the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 on Friday, and Liberal and National Party Senators voted not to hear them.

 

Instead, the Turnbull Government is listening to the (maybe) tens of people – at the Institute of Public Affairs, and the Herald Sun and The Australian newspapers – who have been clamouring for these changes.

 

Or, as Barnaby Joyce acknowledged (and yes, I’m just as surprised as you are that I’m quoting him, approvingly, twice in the same article):

 

“This is an issue, it is an issue but I’ll be frank, it lives in the extremities of the bell curve. Where do you meet those people [who care about 18C]? At party meetings, they are absolutely blessed people and they are terribly politically involved and they have an intense interest in some of the minutiae of debate. They come into your office to rant and rave about it, all four of them.”

 

It is hard to summarise the proposed changes to 18C much better than that – the racial vilification laws that protect millions of Australians from hate-speech are being wound back because of the passionate and vocal interest of extremists inside the Liberal and National Parties who ultimately won’t be affected by it in the slightest.

 

**********

 

Not content with displaying its fundamental flaws in relation to 18C, the past week also saw the Turnbull Government debating another subject on which it is consistently ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’: marriage equality.

 

Specifically, the man most likely to replace Malcolm as Prime Minister, Peter Dutton (now that’s a phrase I’d hoped never to write), has been actively pushing a proposal to hold a ‘postal plebiscite’ on this issue.

 

To be fair to the incumbent, Turnbull has so far not expressed formal support for this idea. But then he hasn’t ruled it out either, and, given he maintains his predecessor, Tony Abbott’s, policy in favour of a ‘traditional’ plebiscite, there is a real risk the postal plebiscite will become Government policy.

 

This is, at its core, another mean-spirited proposal.

 

Imposing a plebiscite – traditional or postal – to determine whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should enjoy equal rights under the law is a hurdle that no other social group has been forced to overcome.

 

The idea that we need to hold such a vote to determine whether couples like Steve and me can say ‘I do’ is so ridiculous that it should have been laughed off. But it isn’t just couples like Steve and me, who have only been together eight and a half years, affected by the ongoing ban on marriage equality.

 

It also denies the rights of couples like Peter de Waal and Peter Bonsall-Boone, who have been together for more than 50 years, and who simply want to be married under the law just like any other couple.

 

Holding a postal plebiscite will take several months, and a positive result would still need to be confirmed by legislation afterwards. This is time that some couples do not have:

 

“I doubt that I will live long enough to see same-sex marriage,” said Bonsall Boone, who is now battling cancer. 

 

Therefore, the idea that the Government could hold a postal plebiscite on marriage equality isn’t just unprecedented, or ridiculous, it is downright offensive, especially when the alternative is so obvious.

 

As De Waal says: “[t]he simplest, cheapest, quickest and fairest way to resolve this inequality is a free vote in federal parliament now!”

 

The postal plebiscite is also tricky in two key ways. First, the legislation to hold a traditional plebiscite on marriage equality was firmly rejected by the Senate in November last year.

 

Having failed in that attempt, for the Government to turn around and hold one anyway, this time via post and therefore not requiring parliamentary approval, is both sly and underhanded.

 

Or, as Liberal backbencher Trent Zimmerman acknowledged: “it [is] the wrong path because it would be seen as ‘tricky and sneaky’, it would be non-binding and its result could be disregarded” [emphasis added].

 

Second, the nature of a postal plebiscite would effectively stack the decks against marriage equality. The group most likely to engage via post – older Australians – are also the least likely to support marriage equality. The converse is also true – many younger people, who are overwhelmingly in favour of the equal rights of LGBTI people, would be less likely to vote this way.

 

A postal plebiscite would also inevitably be a contest between passionate advocates at either end of the debate, instead of the middle Australia who, as demonstrated by opinion poll after opinion poll, are, to use John Howard’s phrase, entirely ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the idea of two men, or two women, marrying.

 

Finally, as Mr Zimmerman suggests, the lower turnout of a postal plebiscite would also reduce its legitimacy, making a public ‘yes’ vote easier for MPs to ignore (remembering that the same conservatives who now support a plebiscite questioned the validity of the Irish marriage equality referendum because ‘only’ 60% of people voted).

 

Just as with the changes to section 18C, the push for a postal plebiscite on marriage equality also reveals just how out of touch the current Liberal-National Government has become.

 

While the proposal to hold a traditional plebiscite was initially popular, that support dropped away dramatically through 2016 as people increasingly understood it would be unnecessary, wasteful and divisive.

 

A postal plebiscite is just as unnecessary, and would still be preceded by a bitter and hate-filled public debate. Perhaps the only ‘improvement’, if you could call it that, is that it would waste tens, rather than hundreds, of millions of dollars.

 

The idea itself seems to have appeared out of nowhere. I cannot recall any news story, or opinion piece, published prior to last week where anyone was calling for the plebiscite to be revived and for it to be conducted via post.

 

That simply confirms that this proposal is not about meeting any demonstrated need from the community – instead, it is being driven by the internal politics of a dysfunctional Government that steadfastly refuses to do the one thing that would actually end this issue once and for all: hold a free vote in parliament.

 

Finally, this is another instance of the Turnbull Government not listening to the people who are affected by this issue: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

As a community, we said a very firm ‘no’ to the idea of a traditional plebiscite in the second half of 2016, in large part because of the harm it would cause to young and vulnerable members of our community.

 

Based on everything that has been said since the absurd notion of a postal plebiscite was floated last week, we reject the idea of an optional opinion poll via return mail, too (perhaps even more strongly).

 

As Rodney Croome of just.equal notes: “[r]egardless of the model, a plebiscite does not mean more power to the people, but an abdication of responsibility by politicians. It is the coward’s way out.”

 

Or, in the words of Alex Greenwich from Australian Marriage Equality, it is a ‘desperate ploy’, and “[i]t would be seen as a pretty sneaky and underhanded way to do it, I mean, bypassing the parliament.”
All-in-all, this is an issue that only really affects LGBTI people, and our family members and friends. And we’ve already made our views on this topic very clear – we want marriage equality, we want it now, and we want it passed in the ordinary way: in parliament.

 

Almost 13 years after marriage equality was originally banned by John Howard’s Coalition Government in August 2004, it is time for Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition Government to start listening to us and just get it done already. If they don’t, they might find themselves with a lot more free time come 2019.

 

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These two policies – the proposed reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and the possible postal plebiscite – don’t just reveal a Government that is ‘mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening’. They are also two of the worst, and most indefensible, policies of an era that is already renowned for poor governance.

 

This Government actually wants to make it easier to vilify people on the basis of their race. Voluntarily holding a national public vote on marriage equality will see people vilified on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, too.

 

They also share another similarity – they are things not even John Howard did. He had almost twelve years as Prime Minister, including two and half with a Senate majority, in which to wind back our racial vilification laws, and chose not to do so.

 

And, even though he legislated the ‘wrong’ way, he also knew that the issue of marriage equality was one that could and should be settled by our 226 elected representatives, sitting in our nation’s parliament.

 

In this way, we can see that Malcolm Turnbull won’t just be remembered as one of our most disappointing, and disheartening, Prime Ministers, someone who has comprehensively failed to live up to such high expectations. He will also go down as one of the worst. Period.

 

Howard and Turnbull

One of these things is too much like the other.

Submission to Inquiry into Freedom of Speech in Australia

Update 1 March 2017:

The Joint Committee on Human Rights handed down its report on Freedom of Speech in Australia yesterday (Tuesday 28 February). A full copy of the report can be found here.

On the positive side, the Committee did not make formal recommendations to wind back, or even repeal, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, although it did include a number of options that, if implemented, would effectively undermine racial vilification protections in this country.

On the negative side, and despite accepting and publishing my submission (see below), the Committee apparently failed to consider the issue of whether anti-vilification laws should be expanded to cover other groups who are currently not protected in Commonwealth law, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

Disappointingly, Labor members did not refer to this issue in their additional comments, nor did the Australian Greens as part of their dissenting report. All of which means that the campaign to secure Commonwealth LGBTI anti-vilification laws that are equivalent to section 18C must continue.

 

Original post:

As many of you would be aware, Commonwealth Parliament is currently conducting an inquiry into ‘freedom of speech in Australia’ – specifically whether the racial vilification protections offered by section 18C in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 should be restricted.

The following is my submission to this inquiry, arguing that not only is there insufficient justification to amend (or even repeal) 18C, but that Parliament should instead be considering how to better protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians against vilification.

Full details of the Inquiry, including the 374 submissions (and counting) that have been published, can be found here.

 

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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights

18Cinquiry@aph.gov.au

 

Dear Committee Members

Submission to Inquiry into Freedom of Speech in Australia

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to this inquiry into what is an important issue.

 

In this submission I will primarily focus on terms of reference 1 (concerning sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975) and 4 (how the Australian Human Rights Commission can better protect freedom of speech), rather than terms of reference 2 (regarding the processes that apply to complaint handling) or 3 (‘soliciting complaints’).

 

I am writing this submission from the perspective of an Australian with Anglo-Celtic heritage, and therefore someone who is unlikely to be subject to racial vilification in this country.

 

However, I also write as an out gay man, who has witnessed, and experienced, vilification on the basis of sexual orientation. Those experiences particularly inform the latter part of this submission.

 

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Term of Reference 1: Whether the operation of Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) imposes unreasonable restrictions upon freedom of speech, and in particular whether, and if so how, ss 18C and 18D should be reformed.

 

No law is ever perfect. Each piece of legislation that exists today could probably be better drafted in some way (or indeed many ways).

 

That statement applies to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, in the same manner as any other law, including its provisions that make racial vilification unlawful.

 

As the Committee would be aware, section 18C stipulates that:

 

“(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

  • the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and
  • the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

 

As I wrote in my submission to the Government’s Exposure Draft Freedom of Speech (Repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014, “I do not believe that, were provisions regarding racial vilification to be drafted today, they would include the terms ‘offend’ or ‘insult’ (or at least not without aggravating factors or considerations).”

 

It is at least possible to argue that the type of conduct that is, prima facie, captured by these terms – insult and offend – is too broad.

 

But, as I then went on to observe in that same submission, “it is one thing to suggest that the drafting of a provision is something less than ‘ideal’ – it is another to suggest that poor drafting has directly caused problems that mean it must be amended.”

 

And it is on that second point that I believe the case to amend or even repeal section 18C falls down. Because I am yet to be convinced that the drafting of 18C itself has caused serious problems in the operation of Australia’s racial vilification framework.[i]

 

There are three main arguments that support this conclusion.

 

First, racial vilification generally, and section 18C specifically, has been subject to considerable public debate since the election of the then-Abbott Liberal-National Government in September 2013.

 

Many critics have argued, at times vociferously, that the section as drafted is an unacceptable infringement upon the right to free speech. If such a claim were true, then these same critics should be able to provide examples of speech that are unlawful currently, that would be lawful if this section was reformed, and which are clearly in the public interest to be heard.

 

I am unaware of anyone who has, over those past three years, been able to provide a compelling example. That failure seriously undermines the case for change.

 

Second, I believe it is equally difficult to find an example of section 18C being applied incorrectly in case law, such that speech that should have been lawful was, ultimately, found to be unlawful by the courts.

 

The most famous (or infamous) case that is often cited is Eaton v Bolt [2011] FCA 1103. However, as I observed in my submission to the Government’s Freedom of Speech (Repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014, “it is not clear that the outcome of the “Bolt case” makes any persuasive case for change.”

 

I went on to write:

 

“In the summary of that decision, Justice Mordecai Bromberg explained that “I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles” of Mr Bolt (para 17).

 

“Justice Bromberg also explained that Mr Bolt’s conduct could not fit within what are, to be frank, extremely generous exemptions in section 18D, writing that “I have not been satisfied that the offensive conduct that I have found occurred, is exempted from unlawfulness by section 18D. The reasons for that conclusion have to do with the manner in which the articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language” (para 23, emphasis added).

 

“In his summary, Justice Bromberg also articulates at least one of the reasons why laws should exist to prohibit writings such as those of Mr Bolt: “People should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying. Disparagement directed at the legitimacy of the racial identification of a group of people is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance, just as disparagement directed at the real or imagined practices or traits of those people is also destructive of racial tolerance” (para 22).

“In short, there appears to at least be an arguable case that not only was the “Bolt case” decided correctly on the existing law, but also that the current provisions are operating as intended to limit the negative effects of racial intolerance. Conversely, I believe it is difficult to argue, solely on the basis of Eatock v Bolt, that section 18C is so deficient that it should be amended, and amended as a matter of high priority.”

That remains my opinion today.

 

Third, it is impossible to argue for amendment to, or repeal of, section 18C in isolation, and without considering the generous exemptions provided by section 18D:

 

“Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

  • in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or
  • in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or
  • in making or publishing:
    1. a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or
    2. a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.”

 

These provisions, and especially the protections for ‘fair comment’ on a ‘matter of public interest’ if it is ‘an expression of a genuine belief’, cover an extremely wide range of potential statements where they otherwise offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate other persons or groups on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

 

Once again, it is up to advocates for change to the existing law to provide examples of speech that remains unlawful, despite section 18D, and that it is clearly in the public interest to hear. As with section 18C discussed above, I am not aware of any such example.

 

Recommendation 1: Sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 should remain as currently drafted.

 

In the absence of a compelling case to amend or repeal sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, I would like to suggest an alternative area of anti-vilification law reform for which there is, from my perspective, a clear and urgent need for reform: the introduction of vilification protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

Despite the almost relentless criticism of racial vilification laws over the past three years, and especially in certain mainstream media publications in 2016, there has been comparative silence, or near silence, about the fact there are currently no Commonwealth protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

The Commonwealth is not alone in failing to offer these protections: only NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT have laws that expressly prohibit anti-LGBTI vilification[ii].

 

This is an issue that I have repeatedly attempted to draw attention to, via multiple policy submissions (including the already-mentioned submission on the Government’s Exposure Draft Freedom of Speech (Repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014, a submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into Traditional Rights and Freedoms, and a submission in response to their Interim Report, as well as a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s consultation on Rights & Responsibilities, led by the now-Member for Goldstein, Tim Wilson).

 

In each process I have made the case that, if race-based vilification is considered legally unacceptable, then so too should be homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification.

 

As I wrote in the Star Observer newspaper in May 2014[iii]:

 

“[T]here is no conceptual or philosophical reason why racial vilification should be deemed to be so serious a problem as to require a legal complaints and resolution scheme, but vilification based on homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and anti-intersex prejudice should not.

 

“After all, both groups – Australians of diverse racial backgrounds and LGBTI people – are regularly subject to vilification in public contexts, whether that be in political or media debates, or in harassment and abuse in public spaces.

 

“For LGBTI people, this includes comments made in Federal Parliament itself. Over the past [15] years, we have had three… senators rhetorically link marriage equality with bestiality, repeat claims that allowing two men or women to wed will create another stolen generation, and smear an openly-gay High Court Justice with allegations of paedophilia (apparently solely on the basis of the judge’s homosexuality).

 

“Vilification based on sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status occurs all-too-frequently at the everyday ‘street level’, too. Anyone who is visibly identifiable as LGBTI, including non-LGBTI people who are perceived as being LGBTI by others, or indeed anyone who simply wants to engage in the tender act of holding one’s same-sex partner’s hand, knows the risks that expressing who you are in public can bring, from being yelled at from passing cars, to the very real threat of much worse.

 

“Such fears are grounded in hard statistics. A 2003 NSW Attorney-General’s Report found that in the previous 12 months, 56 per cent of gay men and lesbians had been subject to one of more forms of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence. And that’s before we take into account the disturbingly high number of gay and bisexual men violently murdered in Sydney during the 1980s and 1990s, but whose deaths are only now being properly investigated.

 

“The consequences of anti-LGBTI vilification are also reflected in figures that show that LGBTI Australians continue to experience disproportionately high rates of mental health issues, including depression, self-harm and, most tragically, suicide. It is not hard to draw a link between public denigration and contempt for a person’s identity or status, and poorer personal mental health.

 

“So, if Australians of diverse racial backgrounds and LGBTI people are both subject to vilification, and both experience negative outcomes as a result, why shouldn’t both vulnerable groups have the same level of legal protection?”

 

That question remains relevant to this Committee today, and especially to this particular Inquiry.

 

I would argue that, given the harms of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic vilification outlined above, rather than recommending amendment to or repeal of sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Vilification Act 1975, the Committee should instead support the introduction of equivalent provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to prohibit vilification against LGBTI Australians.

 

Recommendation 2: The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 should be amended to make vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status unlawful. These provisions should be drafted on the same basis as existing prohibitions against racial vilification in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

 

**********

 

Term of Reference 4: Whether the operation of the [Australian Human Rights] Commission should be otherwise reformed in order better to protect freedom of speech and, if so, what those reforms should be.

 

I would like to make one final point, related to the previous discussion, about the terms of reference to this inquiry, and the overall direction of anti-vilification reform in Australia.

 

Namely, there continues to be disproportionate focus on freedom of speech, with little attention paid to the potential harmful outcomes from unfettered or completely unregulated speech.

 

This ideological bent is already apparent in the term of reference highlighted above (focused on free speech and not its effects), but is revealed even more clearly by examining the paragraph in the Terms of Reference that follows:

 

“The Committee is asked, in particular, to consider the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission in its Final Report on Traditional Rights and Freedoms – Encroachments by Commonwealth Laws [ALRC Report 129 – December 2015], in particular Chapter 4 – “Freedom of Speech”.

 

Turning to that Report, the relevant recommendation is found at 4.251 on page 126:

 

“The ALRC concludes that the following Commonwealth laws should be further reviewed to determine whether they unjustifiably limit freedom of speech:

  • Pt IIA of the RDA, in conjunction with consideration of anti-vilification laws more generally.”

 

That last phrase – “in conjunction with consideration of anti-vilification laws more generally” – only fully makes sense when considered in the context of the preceding discussion in paragraphs 4.207 to 4.209 on page 119 of the Report:

 

“The ALRC has not established whether s 18C of the RDA has, in practice, caused unjustifiable interferences with freedom of speech. However, it appears that pt IIA of the RDA, of which s 18C forms a part, would benefit from more thorough review in relation to freedom of speech.

 

“In particular, there are arguments that s 18C lacks sufficient precision and clarity, and unjustifiably interferes with freedom of speech by extending to speech that is reasonably likely to ‘offend’. The provision appears broader than is required under international law to prohibit the advocacy of racial hatred and broader than similar laws in other jurisdictions, and may be susceptible to constitutional challenge.

 

“However, any such review should not take place in isolation. Stakeholders put forward arguments that people should also be protected from vilification on other grounds, including sex, sexual orientation and gender identity” (emphasis added).

 

In short, the Government asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to examine traditional rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech. The ALRC then considered sections 18C and 18D in detail, but was not in a position to determine whether or not these sections unjustifiably interfered with freedom of speech.

 

Instead, the ALRC recommended that this part of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 be reviewed further – as part of a broader review of anti-vilification laws, including whether these protections should be extended to others grounds, such as sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

However, in establishing this Inquiry, the Government appears to have done the exact opposite: it has focused solely on the protection of freedom of speech, and not at all on the consequences of unfettered free speech, ignoring any possible need to introduce additional protected attributes in Commonwealth anti-vilification law.

 

Once again, I would urge the Committee – and through you, the Parliament – to consider the issue of whether LGBTI anti-vilification protections should be established in Commonwealth legislation, and in this way to give full effect to the recommendation of the ALRC.

 

**********

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide this submission, and for taking it into account as part of the Committee’s deliberations.

 

Should you have any questions, or to request additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at the contact details provided with this submission.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Friday 9 December 2016

 

Footnotes:

[i] Please note here that, as stated in the introduction, I am not commenting on the processes that apply to complaint handling, which includes complaints with little or no substance, as well as the timelines involved in resolving complaints. Other individuals and/or organisations are better placed to make recommendations on those particular matters (although I suspect it may involve a combination of procedural changes, and increased funding for the Commission and Courts to enable the existing caseload to be dealt with in a more timely manner).

[ii] Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia have racial vilification laws but no LGBTI equivalent, while the Northern Territory has neither.

[iii] Star Observer, “Where’s the LGBTI Equivalent of Section 18C?” 19 May 2014.

Don’t Limit Racial Vilification Protections, Add Vilification Protections for LGBTI Australians

The following is my submission to the Attorney-General’s Department’s Review of the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 – Exposure Draft (aka the Bill to significantly limit the scope of racial vilification protections under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975).

Submissions close on Wednesday 30 April, and more details can be found here: <http://www.ag.gov.au/Consultations/Pages/ConsultationsonamendmentstotheRacialDiscriminationAct1975.aspx

I strongly encourage you to make a submission, and include in it the call for the Commonwealth to focus on expanding protections for the benefit of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, rather than limiting the operation of s18C for one Melbourne-based News Ltd columnist. Thanks.

Human Rights Policy Branch

Attorney-General’s Department

3-5 National Circuit

BARTON ACT 2600

s18cconsultation@ag.gov.au

Thursday 24 April 2014

To whom it may concern,

SUBMISSION ON RACIAL VILIFICATION AMENDMENTS

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on the proposed changes to the racial vilification provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, as contained in the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 Exposure Draft.

For the reasons explained below, I do not support the replacement of existing sections 18B, 18C, 18D and 18E with the new clauses of the Exposure Draft Bill.

However, I do believe that significant changes should be made to vilification provisions in Commonwealth law: namely, that vilification protections should be expanded to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The absence of such protections leaves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians vulnerable to the same types of adverse public conduct experienced by people of different racial backgrounds, but without recourse to the same complaint resolution mechanisms.

I will now turn to these two issues – the proposed reforms, and the case for introducing LGBTI vilification protections – in more detail.

Proposed Reforms to Section 18C

In considering any potential reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, it is useful to start at the particular sub-section which features in most debate. Sub-section 18C(1)(a) makes it “unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if: the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.”

I am of the view that the drafting of this sub-section is probably not ideal, and, arguably, is too broad in terms of the types of conduct that at least theoretically could be captured. I do not believe that, were provisions regarding racial vilification to be drafted today, they would include the terms ‘offend’ or ‘insult’ (or at least not without aggravating factors or considerations).

However, it is one thing to suggest that the drafting of a provision is something less than ‘ideal’ – it is another to suggest that poor drafting has directly caused problems that mean it must be amended. And even if that test is satisfied, any proposed reforms to the law should be an improvement, and not worsen any potential harm.

Turning to the question of whether the drafting of section 18C has directly led to, or caused, any significant problems, I am not convinced that it has. Racial vilification protections under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 appear to be widely supported by the community, and, for the most part, appear to be working well, both with the oversight of the Australian Human Rights Commission and in the Courts.

There is, of course, one case which is frequently cited as necessitating change to section 18C, and its related provisions, and that is the case of Eatock v Bolt [2011] FCA 1103.

Even ignoring the old legal maxim that hard cases make bad law (“Hard cases, it has frequently been observed, are apt to introduce bad law”, from Judge Rolfe in Winterbottom v Wright in 1842), it is not clear that the outcome of the “Bolt case” makes any persuasive case for change.

In the summary of that decision, Justice Mordecai Bromberg explained that “I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles” of Mr Bolt (para 17).

Justice Bromberg also explained that Mr Bolt’s conduct could not fit within what are, to be frank, extremely generous exemptions in section 18D, writing that “I have not been satisfied that the offensive conduct that I have found occurred, is exempted from unlawfulness by section 18D. The reasons for that conclusion have to do with the manner in which the articles were written, including that they contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language” (para 23, emphasis added).

In his summary, Justice Bromberg also articulates at least one of the reasons why laws should exist to prohibit writings such as those of Mr Bolt: “People should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying. Disparagement directed at the legitimacy of the racial identification of a group of people is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance, just as disparagement directed at the real or imagined practices or traits of those people is also destructive of racial tolerance” (para 22).

In short, there appears to at least be an arguable case that not only was the “Bolt case” decided correctly on the existing law, but also that the current provisions are operating as intended to limit the negative effects of racial intolerance. Conversely, I believe it is difficult to argue, solely on the basis of Eatock v Bolt, that section 18C is so deficient that it should be amended, and amended as a matter of high priority.

Even if the argument that change was, indeed, necessary was accepted, I do not support that changes proposed in the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 Exposure Draft.

I believe that the replacement of ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ with to vilify (defined as “to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons”) or to intimidate (meaning “to cause fear of physical harm; to a person; to the property of a person; or to the members of a group of persons”), would arbitrarily and unduly limit the effectiveness of these protections.

I agree with the Australian Human Rights Commission, in their statement of Tuesday 25 March 2014, that: “the bill reduces the level of protection by providing a narrow definition of vilification and by limiting intimidation to causing fear of physical harm. It is not clear why intimidation should not include the psychological and emotional damage that can be caused by racial abuse.”

I also agree with the Australian Human Rights Commission in their concerns about the breadth of the exemptions proposed in new clause (4). As the Commission notes “[t]his provision is so broad it is difficult to see any circumstances in public that these protections would apply.”

This is at least in part because the previous limitations of section 18D – that words or conduct must be done “reasonably and good faith” to be exempted – have been removed, again without a clear explanation or motivation. In my opinion, the proposals contained in the Exposure Draft Bill would not improve the operation of racial vilification protections generally, but instead have the capacity to make things substantially worse.

Overall, while I concede that the current drafting of section 18C is not ‘ideal’, I do not believe that there are sufficient problems in practice for it to be amended. I also strongly oppose the replacement of sections 18B, 18C, 18D and 18E of the current Racial Discrimination Act 1975, with the clauses contained in the Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 Exposure Draft.

Recommendation 1. The Freedom of speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014 – Exposure Draft should not be introduced into or passed by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Need to expand vilification protections to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status

While I do not believe a case has been made to reform the racial vilification provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, I do believe there is a strong case for expanding vilification provisions under Commonwealth law to offer additional protection to LGBTI Australians.

In a similar way to their ongoing problems with race, some extreme elements within Australian society continue to demonstrate their difficulty in accepting people, and treating them equally, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

Both groups – Australians of diverse racial backgrounds, and LGBTI people – are regularly subject to vilification in public contexts, whether that be in political or media debates, or in harassment and abuse in public spaces.

Significantly, while LGBTI Australians finally achieved anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law in 2013 (a mere 38 years after the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act), the Sex Discrimination Act amendments did not include protections from homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and anti-intersex vilification. Unlike people of diverse races, LGBTI people still cannot launch complaints about vilification under Commonwealth law.

There is no philosophical or conceptual reason why this should be the case – both are vulnerable groups, subject to vilification against which they deserve to be protected.

The vilification of LGBTI people can take many forms. A 2003 NSW Attorney-General’s Report found that, in the previous 12 months, 56% of gay men and lesbians had been subject to one or more forms of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence.

This violence can also be extreme – as demonstrated by the disturbingly high number of gay men violently murdered in Sydney during the 1980s and 1990s, but whose tragic deaths are only now being properly investigated.

In terms of vilification in public debate, there are almost too many examples of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination to choose from (and certainly enough to hold an annual event ‘celebrating’ the worst of these comments in a range of different areas of public life, aka The GLORIAs).

One notorious example from recent years was the homophobic comment of a religious figure, addressing a ‘National Marriage Day’ rally outside Parliament House in 2012, who said “I’m convinced that homosexuals (re)produces (sic) themselves by molesting children.”

Unfortunately, heading inside Parliament House, the tenor of public debate is sometimes not much better. Over the past 12 years we have seen Senators argue that allowing two men or two women to marry could lead to humans having sex with animals, arguing that enacting marriage equality would potentially result in another ‘Stolen Generations’, and abusing parliamentary privilege to smear an openly-gay High Court Justice with unfounded allegations of paedophilia (apparently solely because of his homosexuality).

This is not to say that all, or even any, of those comments would necessarily qualify as vilification under an equivalent provision to section 18C, but, the fact those comments are able to be made in our National Parliament provides a small insight into the type of abuse and vitriol which continues in other forums, day-in, day-out, which are not subject to the same levels of scrutiny.

That includes street-level harassment and abuse which my fiancé Steven and I, like many thousands of other LGBTI Australians, experience all-too-frequently. Anyone who is ‘visibly’ identifiable as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, including non-LGBTI people who are perceived as being LGBTI by others, and anyone who simply wants to engage in the tender act of holding one’s same-sex partner’s hand, knows the risks that being or expressing who you are in public can bring, from being yelled at from passing cars, to the very real threat of much, much worse.

Of course, the introduction of s18C-style protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status will not automatically lead to a reduction in such abuse, but it will allow for people to contest the most egregious examples of homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and anti-intersex vilification in public life.

Over time, the introduction of vilification protections for LGBTI Australians, on top of the recently passed anti-discrimination laws, would help to send a strong signal to the wider community that such conduct was no longer tolerated.

The impetus for sending such a signal can be found in figures which show that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians continue to experience disproportionately high rates of mental health issues, including depression, attempted suicide and suicide.

This problem is especially pronounced amongst younger LGBTI people, with young same-sex attracted people estimated to be 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts (source: National LGBTI Health Alliance). Young people’s experience of discrimination and homophobia has been found to play a key role in this huge, and sadly persisting, health disparity.

Not only is public vilification in the form of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination wrong in and of itself, it has serious consequences, including in negative mental health outcomes for LGBTI people.

I believe that anti-LGBTI vilification must be prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act, in the same way that racial vilification was in 1995 when the Racial Hatred Act amended the Racial Discrimination Act, and that it should be done as soon as possible.

Recommendation 2. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 should be amended to prohibit vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Obviously, there are other potential attributes which could also be aided by the introduction of vilification protections, including those grounds which already have Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws (sex, disability and age), but, as I am not an expert in any of those issues, I am not in a position to argue for or against their inclusion in this submission.

Nevertheless, I strongly believe that these questions – whether vilification protections should be expanded, and which additional groups they should cover – are the ones which should be occupying the mind of our Commonwealth Attorney-General, and indeed all MPs, rather than working out how to restrict the protections offered by the racial vilification provisions contained in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

I sincerely hope that this submission assists in helping to turn that conversation around, and that we, as a community, start to focus on enhancing instead of undermining human rights.

Thank you for taking these comments into consideration. Should you require clarification or further information, I can be contacted at the details below.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie