When Labor, the Greens and certain Liberals in western Sydney seats seek to explain their reasons for opposing changes to S18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, they mostly refer to the concerns of ethnic, religious and racial minority groups.
Representatives of Armenian, Hellenic, Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese groups have joined Jewish, Lebanese Muslim and Arab groups to oppose any changes apart from procedural, arguing that amending section 18C will unleash a torrent of ‘hate speech’.
While we occasionally hear half-hearted claims that minorities require special protection from hurt feelings, the main driver of opposition is the political clout of these groups. A dozen or so seats are held on margins smaller than the populations of these groups. And in the recent WA state election, certain Muslim leaders openly endorsed the Greens.
The debate over S18C is much greater than free speech. It is in fact a fight for the votes of people who have different values from those of traditional Australia. Instead of embracing the values of their adopted country, these ethnic, religious and immigrant representatives want Australia to become more like the countries they left behind.
Australia has a deeply rooted tradition of freedom in which free speech is central. Our legal and cultural origins lie in Britain, where the primacy of individuals over collectivism first took root. The same values led the United States to make free speech the first amendment in its Bill of Rights.
Australia has been a leading supporter of free speech internationally. It was a founding member of the United Nations under the leadership of former Labor Minister Dr Evatt, who became President of the UN General Assembly and was instrumental in drafting and having adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 19 of the Declaration states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Freedom of association, worship and movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest, equality before the law and free speech are generally regarded as the bedrock of a free society. On top of these, Australia has embraced equality and respect, irrespective of gender or personal attributes, and rejected claims of inherited status and class.
These values are not necessarily shared by those who come to Australia. Certain Armenians accuse Turkey of genocide but want to suppress its response; Greeks can have issues with Turks and Macedonians; Indians can be racist when it comes to West Indian cricketers but are sensitive to the same speech themselves; those from Arabic and Lebanese Muslim cultures can hold abhorrent views about women and gays and resolve matters of feelings and honour through violence; and many Jews want to suppress Holocaust denialism.
After the Second World War, immigrants who arrived in Australia either abandoned their historic grievances or chose not to share them with others. Millions of post-war immigrants from dozens of countries integrated, assimilated, and did their best to become true-blue Aussies. For their part, Australians welcomed these immigrants as “New Australians” and embraced their food, music and dance.
The fact that leaders of immigrant, ethnic and religious groups are now flexing their political muscle in pursuit of different values is a major concern. Not only does it threaten traditional liberal values, it fuels opposition to immigration among the general community and gives credence to demands to block certain types of immigrants.
Australia cannot afford this; its economic growth depends on a substantial flow of skilled immigrants. (Family reunion immigrants are less beneficial). It would cost us dearly if we were to close our borders to the talents and expertise that immigration delivers.
Other countries have addressed this problem by raising the bar on citizenship. Switzerland, for example, has a relatively relaxed attitude to immigrants provided they find a job. However, becoming a Swiss citizen and eligible to vote in elections requires ten years of residence, no criminal record, a solid employment history and endorsement by the applicant’s Canton (equivalent to state/local government). In practical terms, unless they have embraced “Swiss values”, they do not become citizens.
Opposition to changes to S18C is a wakeup call. Australia’s traditional liberal values are under siege like never before. With one side of politics already in full retreat, it is vital the other side steps up to protect those values before it is too late.