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Time to hit racial abuse for six

By Lisa Singh - posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014

This summer, Australia met the old enemy on cricket pitches across the country. At stake was the Ashes urn and Australia's sporting pride and Australia has made quite the comeback.

There is no love lost between players once they walk out of the pavilion. While we've moved on from Bodyline, the verbal barrage between players is as fierce as it has ever been. Test cricket is a competitive game, and a trial of mental as much as physical endurance.

In the arena of aggressive, high-stakes competition, there are no rules against being offended, except in one important respect. Every professional sport beloved by Australians has serious and strict prohibitions on racially motivated comments and conduct.


Racial equality is at the heart of genuine sporting contests. Only when all people are welcomed to the game can we have a genuinely international contest. And only when sport is played without prejudice can we witness a genuine challenge of human endeavour.

Equality makes victory so much sweeter, and defeat all the more galvanising. That is why the laws of cricket make no distinction between people of different race, instead assuming that everybody has the right to fully participate.

Opponents meet on a level playing field, with mutual respect and a shared determination to prevail. When treated as a place of mutual respect, cricket matches have demonstrated their capacity to break down barriers and bring nations together.

Repeated instances of racial vilification, in Australia and across the world, have led to the International Cricket Council (ICC) introducing one of the toughest anti-racism and diversity codes in world sport. Under the ICC code members, like Australia, are required to impose punishments on spectators found to have participated in offensive conduct on the basis of race from ejection from the venue to a life ban. The point of the ICC's strict rules against racially motivated abuse is not that the cricket pitch is home to sensitive souls. It is that racial abuse is a different category of thing entirely, and something that undermines the very point of cricket in the first place: to join people together in a spirit of friendly competition.

The ICC's rules are very similar to a law introduced in Australia in 1994. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which was introduced under the Keating Government and applied consistently throughout the Howard Government, prohibits conduct that is likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

This section, which has been in place for almost twenty years, was introduced to give people some way to deal with words and actions that attacked them or their fellow citizens simply for being of a particular ethnic background. The law recognises that a community as rich and diverse as Australia's only functions properly when people act in a respectful and responsible way towards each other.


But like the ICC's code, it's not designed just to stop people from getting their feelings hurt. In fact, the courts have always set the bar for breaches of this law much higher than somebody simply being offended. The types of attacks this law defends against are the ones that have the potential to do serious harm to people or to undermine the harmony of our multicultural community.

The kinds of extreme hate speech that Section 18C has covered, for example, include claims that Jewish people exaggerate the scale of the Holocaust for their own benefit.

Such racially motivated attacks are too often precursors to racially motivated violence. In other instances, a lifetime of such abuse without any means of redress can cause terrible trauma. Either way, these are examples that reasonable Australians understand hate speech has no place in a community based on equality.

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This article was first published in the Hobart Mercury.

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About the Author

Senator Lisa Singh is Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Water and prior to this was Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General. She was also a Minister in the Tasmanian Labor Government.

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