Malcolm Turnbull has announced a watering down of the Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, in a major victory for the conservatives in the Liberal Party.
The change was introduced on Harmony Day, 21 March. That might strike readers as an exercise in extreme bad taste, and they’d be right, but the timing is of even greater significance given the origins of Harmony Day, and the political chicanery behind its adoption. It is not a pretty story, for it is a watering down of its original title, the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
True, since its inception 15 years ago the main message of this day is “Everyone Belongs,” a very pro-multiculturalism motto, a praiseworthy sentiment that only the most racist would argue against, even though the original intention of the day has been lost.
Harmony Day was born from analyses carried out by Eureka Research for the Howard-led Coalition Government that was dealing with the rise of multiculturalism and the resultant racial disharmony. There was internal strife and our international reputation was often being bogged down by the reputation it created.
The Government needed a way out, and it needed to be done without airing any negativity or implying that anyone was racist, despite widespread racism being clearly recognised by 85% of individuals surveyed in Eureka’s report.
The hook came in a recommendation in the Eureka report that the Government build on the belief that harmony in the community already existed, despite the vast majority recognising that racism was widespread. And so in a canny and very Orwellian political masterstroke Harmony Day was born.
However, despite 15 years of celebrating harmony, racism and racial discrimination still exist in Australia, so there is no room for complacency. Work still needs to be done to ensure intercultural harmony and an end to racial discrimination.
Which brings me back to the government’s proposal, under which the words “offend, insult, humiliate” will be replaced by “harass”. The word “intimidate” will remain. So the change will mean that it’s in order to insult and humiliate people because of their skin colour or race. Go figure, and of course, be appalled at this change for the worse that will worsen, not improve the situation.
The Coalition party room overwhelmingly backed the measures, but several MPs, opposed the change in wording. There is concern among some Liberals that the issue will lose them votes in seats with large ethnic communities. Let’s hope so.
Even Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told the party room if MPs kept talking about 18C, votes would be lost because it would distract from the government’s agenda, but not, note, because it was a retrograde step that would legislate for even more bigotry than exists already.
Thankfully Labor, the Nick Xenophon team (if they hold firm) and the Australian Greens say they will keep standing with the community to protect Section 18C.
“In his rush to become Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull sold out those who would face discrimination to secure power for himself. It’s disgraceful,” said Greens Leader Richard Di Natale.
Greens legal affairs spokesperson Senator Nick McKim said “The Greens will fight to retain strong protections against racial discrimination.” Good on them. And while they are on about it, why not fight to bring back Harmony Day’s original and intended name, the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.