A vital protection for Australia's First People

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience racial discrimination all the time. The State of Reconciliation report released earlier this year found that 1 in 3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had experienced verbal racial abuse in the six months before the survey.

All people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, have the right to live their lives free of racial discrimination. This is a principle established in international law and one that Australia formally adopted through ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The parliament passed the Racial Discrimination Act, which brings that Convention to life in Australia, in 1976.

In 1995, the Racial Discrimination Act was amended by the Racial Hatred Act 1995 which introduced Sections 18C and 18D (among others) and provides for a process for complaints under the RDA through the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The Commission enquires into the complaint and attempts to resolve the complaint by conciliation. If the complaint is not resolved through conciliation, the complainant can apply for the allegations to be heard and determined by the Federal Court of Australia or Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

This conciliation process has operated effectively for the last 20 years. For example, 76% were successfully resolved, and 94% were satisfied with the Commission’s service in 2015-16.

Attacks on this protection through the Inquiry into Freedom of Speech

On the 8 November, the Attorney General George Brandis bowed to pressure from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, Andrew Bolt, and the Murdoch press to launch an ‘inquiry into free speech’.

The whole purpose of the Inquiry is to undermine protections against race hate in the Racial Discrimination Act. We’ve seen such attempts before in 2014 when Senator Brandis famously said ‘people have the right to be bigots’ in parliament in explaining why he wanted to weaken these protections.

The Inquiry is taking submissions up until 9th December 2016.

Read more in our media release when the inquiry was annouced.

 Some key facts
  • In 1975 The Whitlam Government introduced the Racial Discrimination Act after Australia signed on to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

  • In 2014 the then Abbott Government attempted to repeal the Racial Discrimination Act. Conservative polititians on the right, argued there can be no impingement on the right to free speech.

  • Much of the focus is on Section 18C; however, this section sits alongside and is qualified by Section 18D.

  • The Government has also attacked the performance of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Evidence suggests that the Commission has been highly effective at implementing its mandated role.

  • The 2014 attack on the right to freedom from racial discrimination was stopped in its track by widespread community opposition.

  • The Racial Discrimination Act has protected Australians from race hate since 1995 when the capacity to make complaints under Section 18C was introduced. The section makes it unlawful for someone to commit an act that is reasonably likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of their race or ethnicity.

  • At the same time, Section 18D was introduced to qualify 18C by exempting artistic works, academic and scientific debate and “fair and accurate” reporting of any events or matters of public interest made “reasonably” and in “good faith”.