OPINION: I’ve never seen an issue bring community leaders together like 18C

OPINION: I’ve never seen an issue bring community leaders together like 18C

Original post on The Guardian by our co-founder Jieh-Yung Lo.

The year was 1998. My family just re-located from Footscray to Wantirna South in metropolitan Melbourne. I moved from my first secondary school in West Melbourne, at that time a school comprised of students from many nationalities, to a school where I was only one of two students from an Asian background in my year level. The two years spent at that high school in Ferntree Gully were not easy. During those years, I was not known by the majority of fellow classmates for my academic ability or sporting prowess. I was known as that “Chinese kid with the funny sounding name”.

My ethnicity also gave birth to many names in the playground such as “chink, zipper-head, ching chong and yellow monkey”. Every time I hear these names coming from my classmates, I would wonder why people living in this country, my country of birth, would judge me based on my ethnicity and appearance.

This experience motivated me to dedicate my life to put a stop to racism and vilification. Racist words and attitudes are hurtful, offensive and if no proper action is taken, can lead to further harassment. Racist hate speech can damage an individual’s self confidence and self-esteem leading to social attitudes of racial supremacism, prejudice and racial separatism. I do not want to see my fellow Australians of ethnic backgrounds experience such harsh treatment and judgment.

For four long years, alongside many multicultural community leaders, I have advocated for the retention of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). Like representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, Asian-Australian, European-Australian, African-Australian and Indigenous Australian communities, we were concerned the Abbott government would move to repeal 18C all together. After nearly a decade working with multicultural and interfaith Australians, I have never seen an issue that has brought all community leaders together under one banner. Community representatives have taken to the streets as well as appearing at parliamentary committee hearings with the purpose of protecting 18C as it stands.

The anti-18C advocates have got it all wrong. Section 18C is not about freedom of speech, section 18D already provides protection of freedom of speech. Section 18C is about protecting Australians from all backgrounds from hate speech – and there is a big difference.

For the past 40 years, the RDA has played an important role in protecting and maintaining Australia’s cohesive, diverse and multicultural society. While Australia at the national level remains one of the very few liberal democracies to not have a national bill of rights, the RDA has effectively served in that capacity by ensuring all Australians, regardless of race and background, are treated fairly and equally.

According to a survey commissioned by SBS and Western Sydney University, one in five Australians have experienced racism in the past 12 months. Nearly a third of those surveyed said they have experienced racism within their workplace and educational facility. At least 35% of respondents said they’ve experienced racism on public transport and nearly half of Indigenous respondents said they have experienced racism in some shape or form at sporting events.

It is unfortunate that so many people are still made to feel unwelcome in our diverse country. This is why calls to water down section 18C and the RDA would send the wrong message to potential offenders that discrimination, vilification and hate speech is accepted in our society.

Results from the same survey indicate that up to 77% of Muslim women in Australia have experienced racism on public transport or in the street. To ensure Australians from interfaith backgrounds are given adequate legislative protection, I would like to see sections 18C and 18D strengthened by adding “religion” into the protection.

Such protections already exist in state based legislation such as the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 in Victoria and the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 in New South Wales and it should also be included at the federal level. We live in a society that allows an individual to practice any religion they choose. Muslim Australians should be able to practice their faith without fear, judgment and vilification.

After a three-month public inquiry, the parliamentary joint committee on human rights handed down its report this week. The report recommended minimal changes to 18C but the biggest change of all is to the operation of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the complaints handling process, including the appointment of a judge to serve as a judicial member to deal with initial complaints – a suggestion that many of us in the multicultural and interfaith communities have asked for.

Section 18C is not there to prohibit free speech, it is there to prevent hate speech. A majority of the anti-18C advocates do not understand how it feels to be judged on the basis of their skin colour or faith. They have never been put in a situation where their fellow citizens have made them feel unwelcome in their own country.

The decision to prevent racist hate speech from gaining further prominence is in the hands of the prime minister. For the sake of Australia’s multicultural, harmonious and inclusive society, we hope he will make the right decision and put an end to any further attempts to water down 18C.

Jieh-Yung Lo is the co-founder of Poliversity and a member of the Australian-Chinese community.