The Great Race Debate in Australia

RACISM is an issue often discussed in the Australian media, with little resolution. Samantha Toh discusses the relevance of racial vilification laws currently in place and their impact on society.


Despite being built on the backs of immigration, and priding itself on being a multicultural country, there is little doubt that Australia continues to struggle with racial tolerance. Racism is at play within our community, be it on public transport, on the streets, or in the sporting field. With cultural and ethnic diversity being so central to the Australian identity, and the recent spate of racially-charged incidents making the news, a recent campaign titled ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ is trying to educate and send out a new message to the Australian community.

Launched in 2011, this national anti-racism strategy and campaign seeks to educate Australians about racism and the various forms it takes, work to prevent acts of racism in the community, and in time, significantly reduce racism. The campaign is all the more pertinent given the ongoing debate about racial vilification laws and their place in Australia.

With Asia’s striking economic ascent and prominence on the world stage, coupled with steady migration into Australia from its Asian neighbours, there have been accusations hurled at Australians who, according to left-wing media are becoming less welcoming and increasingly hostile to newly arrived immigrants. Whether based on fears around job security, economic matters or cultural and religious clashes, the fact that Australia’s racial demographics have changed strikingly since the end of the ‘White Australian Policy’, and continue to change are obvious.

Melbourne and Sydney are able to boast about their reputations as cultural melting pots, with restaurants serving up cuisines from all around the world dotting their cities, churches often holding multiple services for speakers of different tongues, racially diverse friendship groups and the visible spectrum of skin colours in schools and on the streets.

The progressively multicultural face of Australia however has not come without its fair share of critics and opponents.

The progressively multicultural face of Australia however has not come without its fair share of critics and opponents. While a majority of racial abuse victims undoubtedly remain quiet about their ordeals, mobile phones and the internet have enabled the filming and viral spread of selected racist incidents, as well as widespread dissemination of news online to millions across Australia.

Of the many incidents reported in the news, several stand out as being particularly disturbing; an anti-Semitic attack on a group of Jewish individuals in Bondi, the racial abuse subjected by a woman on an Asian school boy on a Sydney bus, verbal racist assault by a Melburnian woman on the train and perhaps most intimidating of all, the hate-filled racist rant by three men against a French tourist on a bus.

While the majority of such cases breached Australia’s racial vilification laws and have resulted in legal action and charges, there are individuals who would like to see that changed, arguing Australia’s ban on racial vilification impinges on a basic human right, freedom of speech.

Commonwealth General-Attorney George Brandis is one such individual, seeking to make his first legislative act the amendment of racial discrimination laws in Australia in order to protect freedom of speech. Taking a dislike for provisions that make it unlawful to insult or offend individuals on the basis of their race, Brandis has styled himself as a champion of freedom, striving to introduce a bill to alter sections of the Racial Discrimination Act, laws laid out to protect ethnic groups against racial hate speech. It was these laws that landed Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt in hot water over an article he wrote vilifying “white” Australians who identify as Aborigines to reap benefits.

Identifying his attempt to change the laws as prioritising the rebalancing of the “human rights debate in Australia”, Brandis says in a piece for the Human Rights Law Centre that he is willing to accept and appreciates backlash against his proposed reforms. Following that, there has been a backlash – with individuals of Indigenous, Jewish, Arab, Chinese, Greek, Armenian, Lebanese and Muslim populations uniting in imploring the government to retain the racial protection laws in place.

Ultimately, the ongoing and heated debate centres on the conflict between two significant human rights, freedom of speech as promoted by Brandis, and freedom from discrimination advocated by Australia’s ethnic and religious Councils.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s executive director Peter Wertheim says in a report by the Sydney Morning Herald that never before has there been an issue “on which there has been such unity of purpose and strength of feeling across a diverse group of communities.”

So united are the various groups, including the Arab Council Australia, Chinese Australia Forum, Lebanese Muslim Association – amongst other groups, that they signed and released a joint statement opposing the reforms. The statement states: “we have read with growing concern that the federal government has plans to remove or water down the protections against racial vilification… we oppose absolutely any such damage. Paradoxically for free speech advocates, racial vilification can have a silencing effect on those who are vilified.”

Echoing their message is that of race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who has said that such laws need to be kept in place in order to ensure the protection of ethnic groups from racial hate speech, and amending or watering them down would convey a dangerous message.

In spite of such strong opposition and Brandis’ belief that his resolution to revise the laws may be misinterpreted as condoning racism, he remains unwavering, saying that “you cannot have a situation in a liberal democracy in which the expression of an opinion is rendered unlawful because somebody else… finds it offensive or insulting.”

Brandis hopes to re-centre the human rights debate in Australia so as to ensure the protection of liberal democratic rights of freedom of association, freedom of worship, freedom of the press and freedom of expression, the latter of which has ignited national debate.

Ultimately, the ongoing and heated debate centres on the conflict between two significant human rights, freedom of speech as promoted by Brandis, and freedom from discrimination advocated by Australia’s ethnic and religious Councils. The challenge lies in where to draw the line, so as to protect both critical rights.

1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. I think Brandis would have been a popular politician if he considers an unwavering approach to push for the Freedom of Mutual Respect instead of Freedom of Speech. I noticed Brandis is trying to repackage racism in the Freedom of Speech to conceal his ultimate motive.

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