If we get rid of the Racial Discrimination Act, will racism flourish?

Leila Druery.

No one ever likes to hear a story about a child being bullied. For some this involves being picked on for their appearance, while others are vilified over issues of race, religion or cultural background. For the children currently indefinitely detained in detention centres across the country, it means being called a terrorist. A term that they barely understand – nor should they have to.

I’ve heard stories of children being bullied to the point that they no longer want to go to school. They’re spat on as they walk across the playground and told they don’t belong here, they’re cheaters, queue jumpers and should go back where they came from. These taunts are dealt out by other children, but what’s crippling to realise is that they’re learned attitudes and a sad reflection of the increasingly negative rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers that seeks to exclude, harass and belittle.

What’s more these ideas are not based on facts, but an increasingly unstable wave of media sensationalism. I’ve read online articles about crime stories, where people have commented saying that boat people are destroying our country and their future generations will further dilute our nation. The person was suggesting that an asylum seeker was responsible for the crime – a thought based on no fact or information whatsoever. This feedback in itself shows the powerful aftermath of  our government’s decision to refer to asylum seekers as ‘illegals’ a term so implanted in people’s minds that they’re willing to jump to conclusions without any thought of the consequences.

If asylum seekers are illegal, then they’re criminals. It’s easy to point the finger, to blame them, to pigeonhole them because no one expects you to empathise with a criminal.

For a country built on migration, that strives for inclusion, that boasts attitudes of acceptance, thats claims to celebrate multiculturalism, we’ve reached a disappointing reality. When new Australians who should be welcomed into our communities are instead publicly and blatantly discriminated against on a daily basis we can no longer make such claims.

“For a country built on migration, that strives for inclusion, that boasts attitudes of acceptance, thats claims to celebrate multiculturalism, we’ve reached a disappointing reality.”

The last federal election was fought and won using tactics of fear and division. Phrases like “Stop the boats” and “You will not be settled here” are examples of the increasingly harsh slogans and policies that ultimately led Tony Abbott to victory. As a result however, we are now seeing an increasing amount of racial discrimination and vilification.

Over the past year, 20 per cent of Australians have reported experiences of overt racism. This statistic shows this is not a matter of either flippancy or disembodied political philosophy, for these people racism is a reality they live daily. Advocacy organisation Welcome to Australia has volunteers who work with people all over the country – adults and children – who share the verbal and physical abuse that’s become an accepted part of their day-to-day life. For the most part, these people are experiencing amplified versions of what they’ve heard politicians and media commentators say. They’re reiterations of disseminated and subsequently learned attitudes, learned racism.

In an environment where people are experiencing the direct results of a toxic public conversation that validates racism and vilification, our new Attorney-General George Brandis believes his number one priority is changing the Racial Discrimination Act – which will allow hate speech and offensive racist language.


The Racial Discrimination Act currently prohibits any action to be performed on the basis of someone’s race, ethnicity and or nationality if it is likely to offend the person or people in question. What’s important to realise however, is that this is not just an act ensuring equality, but rather an assertion that acknowledges the importance of tolerance and acceptance in multicultural communities. It sends a message to people that civility is considered a fundamental factor in a cohesive society.

Through this action, our government is opening the door to fear and hatred and its associative discourses. In 2011, established journalist Andrew Bolt was found to have breached the act when producing a column referring to “light skinned” Indigenous Australians. A quick perusal of the comments made in response to the piece was clear-cut proof of just how easily this kind of language seemingly legitimises discrimination. This behaviour should be something we seek to extinguish, rather than inflame.

Mr Brandis stated that changes to the act were an important aspect of his agenda so that “when people talk about rights, they talk about the great liberal democratic rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of worship and freedom of the press”.

“Should our Attorney-General be more focused on protecting voiceless children bullied in Australian playgrounds?”

Although in reality free speech has never been a completely unrestricted right. There are several laws that influence free speech. These include factors such as defamation, advertising, obscenity, fraud, public order and national security. We see these factors as accepted measures in terms of the foreseen consequences when one breaches these conditions. Why should we then see issues pertaining to racism as any less integral to the continued cohesion and unity of our society?

When protecting racists is a greater priority than addressing social and cultural disadvantage, we can be rightly dismayed at our government’s abandonment of  Australian values, and wonder at their vision for the health of Australian communities.

Our leaders need to set their priorities on humanising, including and welcoming people of many different backgrounds. Instead, what we have seen is fear and division used as a political tactic, with laws designed to allow blatant racial vilification.

Should our Attorney-General be more focused on protecting voiceless children bullied in Australian playgrounds, or should they seek to assist journalists with the privilege of a national platform?

No one ever likes to hear a story about a child being bullied. So let’s not create further opportunities for such vilification to receive any form of vindication.

To act now and ensure strong protection against hate speech sign this petition.

Leila Druery is a refugee advocate focusing on the rights of refugee and asylum seeker children. She is currently the Advocacy and Policy Coordinator for Welcome to Australia and continues to dedicate her time to ensuring that children are not detained in Australian run facilities either in Australia or in the Pacific.

Do you think changing the Racial Discrimination Act is a good idea? Will it protect free speech, or merely allow racial discrimination to be vocalised more loudly?