Australian human rights lawyers say proposed changes to Australian anti-discrimination laws which would dramatically widen the boundaries of what can be said in public debate are contrary to international standards and “common sense of what racial discrimination is”.
The proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act were unveiled yesterday by the Attorney-General George Brandis, who said they would strengthen protections against racism while removing unnecessary impingements on free speech.
“We reject the Government’s suggestion that racial vilification or intimidation is acceptable if done ‘in the course of … public discussion of any political [or] social matter’,” said Australian Lawyers for Human Rights president John Southalan.
The organisation also said the proposals were destined to create confusion because of their conflict with laws in other jurisdictions. ALHR will be making a detailed assessment of how the proposed changes in the coming weeks.
“The Government’s proposal is contrary to international standards, the law of various Australian States and Territories, and common sense of what racial discrimination is,” he said. “This proposed change to the law removes important protections against racial discrimination.”
Southalan questioned an amendment that would see claims of vilification judged against the standards of “a reasonable member of the Australian community,” saying the terminology was incompatible with other laws.
“Others laws use notions such as ‘vilify a segment of the Australian community’ (Migration Act), ‘ordinary, reasonable members of the relevant section of the community’ (misleading conduct), or ‘the point of view of ordinary reasonable decent members of the community’ (defamation). The proposal here seems destined to produce confusion,” he said.
Southalan said that, if passed as they were presented to the Australian public yesterday, the new laws would be out of step with international standards.
“The guidance for ALHR’s analysis is the international standards on racial discrimination, which Australia has long championed,” he explained. Preventing racial discrimination was a basic standard of international law, Southaland said, citing several charters and treaties.
“Australia’s High Court has recognised this prohibition is part of customary international law, and it is expressly stated in the 1945 UN Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1963 Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and more recent treaties.
“In the 1963 Declaration, a unanimous General Assembly of the United Nations stated that ‘Everyone shall have the right to…protection against any discrimination he may suffer on the grounds of race … with respect to his fundamental rights and freedoms through independent national tribunals competent to deal with such matters’,” he said.
The ALHR will make a submission after Brandis invited stakeholders to formally express their opinions on the proposed changes.
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