If Tim Wilson is to be believed, the most pressing human rights issue in Australia today is the lack of freedom to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone on the basis of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.
This refers to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which Mr Wilson, our new Human Rights Commissioner, would like to see removed.
Sorry, did I say Human Rights Commissioner? I meant “Freedom” Commissioner. Mr Wilson’s spunky new informal label is not insignificant. It denotes a shift in focus from the longstanding, hard-fought-over and internationally recognised concept of human rights, to Mr Wilson’s arbitrary definition of freedom.
Free speech is an important human right, but we must not forget what damage we can do to that right by legalising hate speech. Tim Soutphommasane, the current Race Discrimination Commissioner, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that allowing racial vilification can harm freedom of speech by silencing its victims. He wrote: “Not everyone is in a position of parity to speak back to those who denigrate them on racial grounds.”
Mr Wilson’s focus on defending those guilty of hate speech, rather than their victims, seems even more bizarre when you look at how 18C has actually been interpreted by the courts. No one has ever been convicted for hurting someone’s feelings. Unlawful conduct has consistently been defined as that which causes “profound and serious effects”. In addition, section 18D of the same act defends free speech by protecting instances where someone has acted in good faith. This includes genuine artistic, scientific or academic work, or fair comment or reporting.
This is why Andrew Bolt lost the court case that triggered this debate. The piece, in which he claimed people had chosen to identify as Indigenous Australians for political gain, was not written in good faith. Facts were distorted, ignored or intentionally left out. Such a maliciously written and widely read column unleashes bigger worries for the indigenous community than a defamation case could address.
The Bolt case wrapped up in 2011, yet it now seems to be the only thing our Human Rights Commissioner is yapping on about. Meanwhile, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being treated as the plaything of our government and opposition.
Our current and former governments are guilty of denying asylum seekers their basic human rights. These include Article 14, “The right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,” and Article 9, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Article 26, which outlines the right to free elementary education, is also being denied to many children in detention.
At the time of writing, Australia is also refusing to support a UN resolution to investigate serious violations and abuses of human rights in Sri Lanka. Over the last year and a half, Australia has sent more than 1,000 asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka. If Sri Lanka is found guilty of these abuses, so too will Australia be found guilty of denying these people their rights under Article 14.
Let that sink in for a minute. Australia, which we so often credit as being one of the fairest and most egalitarian nations of the world, is denying asylum seekers their core human rights. And yet our “Freedom” Commissioner’s primary focus is restoring the right to spew hate speech. Forgive me for being cynical, but it feels like Mr Wilson’s appointment and the 18C debate is a demented sideshow, concocted to distract us from frightening human rights abuses happening on our watch.