Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, of which the late, great, Bill Leak fell foul, is not merely a law. It is, first and foremost, a piece of public policy. As public policy, section 18C works directly against the federal government's decisive shift to integration, announced on Monday.
As far as I can work out, 18C was meant to solve the problem of "hate speech". We need to ask whether that was a problem worth solving and, if so, whether 18C could do it, and at what cost.
About 4.5 million migrants came to Australia as permanent settlers in the period between World War II and 1994, when 18C became law. Migrants settled in a country that accepted them and where free speech was a given.
It seemed to work pretty well, and while the migrant experience is, and has always been, one of painful adjustment (how could it be otherwise?), the Australian experience must be among the world's best.
During that long period, Australia did not divide into warring tribes. That is, until quite recently when identity politics came to the fore. Section 18C has aided the drift to identity politics in Australia. At the same time, it has solved few problems. Several hundred people, perhaps, have had their hurt feelings salved.
I have to confess that I was a member of the federal parliamentary Labor Party caucus that voted for 18C. I opposed it in caucus and supported it in the parliament.
I thought that it would be used to fight inter-ethnic wars. I was wrong. Instead, the Aboriginal industry has become the primary user of this foul piece of legislation.
The three major cases under section 18C concerned Aborigines. Several women of Aboriginal descent took offence at two articles written by Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun. An Aboriginal worker took offence at Facebook comments by several students at Queensland University of Technology. One person, of presumed Aboriginal descent, took offence, later withdrawn, at a cartoon by Leak in The Australian. The key thing about these disputes is that in each case, one or more substantive debates were frozen by the offence of hurt feelings.
Bolt questioned why a particular class of person was allowed to compete for various artistic prizes, which were open only to Aborigines. He questioned the "authenticity" of some of those competing for such prizes. In restricted competitions, participants are bound to be asked, "Are you qualified?"
I am a C-grade golfer. Under handicap, I could compete against the best, but would anyone watch me on television or pay me to teach golf? I don't think so. And yet there are competitions available only to particular classes of artist or writer. Would you buy a piece of art from a C-grade artist or read a book by a C-grade author?
Bolt's perfectly reasonable discussion about meritless competition was blown away under the aegis of hurt feelings.
Three lads entered a computer facility at QUT. They were not aware that the facility was for the sole use of indigenous students. They were asked whether they were indigenous.
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