Anger in community at changes to Section 18C

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Indian Link survey reveals ethnic minorities will change their votes based on 18C reform

Just one day after releasing a report titled ‘Multicultural Australia: United, Strong and Successful’, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal Party colleagues announced their proposal to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

18C.Indian Link
(Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP)

After months of debate and a Joint Parliamentary Committee Report which failed to reach a conclusion on 18C but called for operational and process reform of the Human Rights Commission, and in spite of several MPs speaking against the changes – likely due to their marginal seats, or those with a high number of ethnic communities in their electorates – the proposed bill was agreed to by the party room.
Ethnic community groups have said these proposed changes are disappointing and motivated by outdated ideologies or political expediency. They have advised that watering down the Racial Discrimination Act will allow racism in the community to flourish and create legal confusion.
Indian Link compiled a survey to determine if attitudes at the grassroots level in the community are reflected by the tone of debate among leaders and politicians. 225 responses were gathered in a period of 24 hours. The majority of respondents were of Asian origin (56%), followed by Australian origin (25%) and European origin (5%).
18C.Indian Link
In many ways, the results of the survey were mostly unsurprising.
When asked, “The government has proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Do you understand what these changes mean?” a majority 41% responded ‘Yes, somewhat’ followed by 36% with ‘Yes, completely’. Of the respondents who were less clear about the changes, 13% answered ‘No, not really’ and 10% ‘No, not at all’.
It seems the Coalition government may be in trouble if it continues its crusade with these reforms. Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce has previously said 18C is not a burning issue in the electorate and the government would lose votes on it. The results of our survey indicate he is not wrong.  

“Does the proposal to make these changes influence the way you intend to vote in the next election?”

An overwhelming majority of 70% of respondents indicated the issue would have some influence over their decision (33%) or would completely change their vote (37%) in the next election. This should be particularly concerning for the Coalition government given that it suffered a 2.8 per cent swing against it at the last election and holds power with a single seat majority in the lower house.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten gave an impassioned speech at the Australian Migration and Settlement Awards the day following the government’s announcement. He told the audience, “I’ve never personally come face to face with racial prejudice directed at me. And – by an overwhelming majority – neither have the people who are arguing that the Racial Discrimination Act needs to change. These are predominately powerful, vocal, middle-aged men – who think this is all just a thoroughly interesting philosophical discussion.”
“But racism isn’t a theory for the Asian-Australian student, being heckled and abused on her way home on the train. It’s not a hypothetical debating point for the man in a turban driving a cab, or working the night shift at a service station, being mocked by drunks. People who work hard, pay their taxes – they shouldn’t have to wonder why their parliament is arguing whether or not it should be easier to insult, offend or humiliate them. Or simply be told that if you are harassed, well that’s different. This debate hurts people and it hurts our country.”
18C.Indian Link
It is clear Labor intends to use this issue to draw political capital. Without the support of Labor or the Greens, the government needs nine of the 11 Senate crossbenchers to support their changes the Act. The Nick Xenophon Team has confirmed it will not support the changes to the wording of the Act meaning the proposed bill is unlikely to pass the Senate. The damage to the Coalition’s reputation may already have been done.

Free speech or hate speech?

After announcing the 18C reforms, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in Question Time in Parliament, “We are standing up for the freedom of speech that underpins our society, the greatest multicultural society in the world…We know that our precious freedoms, our freedom of speech, is the very foundation of the nation.”
But it seems many in the community view this reasoning with great cynicism. When asked “Why do you think the government is proposing these changes?” the majority of respondents pointed to PM Turnbull’s desire to appease members of the right-wing of his party and more conservative crossbenchers. One respondent wrote, “It’s a clear attempt to pander to the far-right factions of the party (factions in which the Prime Minister has been manifestly unpopular) and, similarly, to take the sting out of similar proposals by parties such as One Nation.” (See below for more comments.)
18C.Indian Link
Many pointed to the composition of the Coalition itself as the issue. “The Liberal Party is controlled by bigoted, white old men who have no understanding of what racism really is for ethnic minorities,” wrote one respondent.
Others were concerned that this issue has clouded the debate about more important political concerns. One respondent wrote, “The papers tell me Turnbull caved in from peer pressure. I am not quite sure why this needs to be reformed when there’s a lot of other reforms that are more necessary.” On the other side, several respondents seemed to have absorbed some of the Coalition and government rhetoric on the issue, writing that the changes were to “promote free speech to be fairer” and “eliminate needless litigation”. Others answered that the reforms are necessary “to take some action against racist activities around the country” and “to narrow the meaning/interpretations of the legislation to avoid future frivolous law suits”.

Are the 18C reforms out of touch with the needs and wants of the majority of modern Australia?

One of the most worrying and significant responses was to the question “Do you think the changes will lead to more racism in the community?” A surprising 56% of respondents answered ‘Yes’, followed by 30% with ‘Can’t say’ and 14% with ‘No’.
This result was made distressing by peoples’ answer to the question, “Have you or anyone you know ever been the victim of a racist slur or attack in Australia?” where a staggering 73% of respondents answered ‘Yes’.
It was writer Benjamin Law who requested people share their own stories and experiences with racism on social media using the hashtag #FreedomOfSpeech in an attempt to highlight the fact that the previous terms of 18C were necessary for the protection of minorities. The hashtag has gone viral with many contributing their personal stories. Pakistani comedian Sami Shah, who is now an Australian citizen living in Melbourne shared: “I can’t actually pick which racist experience to list cause there’ve been so many.” ainsindahouse tweeted: Being so generic brown that dude couldn’t figure out which racial slur to use so he tried them all.”

Support for process reform

Julian Leeser, Member for Berowra in NSW, had been vocal of the need to maintain Section 18C as a limited protection. He told Indian Link in an interview just days before the PM’s announcement, “I think free speech is important, we need free speech to be able to challenge people’s ideas about things, but the idea of free speech is that you can change your mind. While you can change your mind, you can’t change your race. My preferred option was that we codify the law in the way in which judges have interpreted Section 18C, and that is, it doesn’t mean mere offence or mere slights, it has to be profound and substantial.”
Mr Leeser said both sides of politics agreed the Human Rights Commission had not been doing its job properly in allowing cases such as that of the QUT students and the late cartoonist Bill Leak to go ahead.
The bipartisan Report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Racial Discrimination Act proposed a series of legislative reforms that many in Parliament, and indeed the community, do seem to support – making it harder to lodge a complaint, making it easier for the commission to terminate matters it deems without chance of success and restricting access to the courts if the Commission has terminated a matter.
Mr Leeser told Indian Link, “I’ve been the great champion of process reforms. This issue has been stuck in a political deadlock since 2011. We need to get legislation through the parliament and move this issue off the front page of the papers.”
But he conceded, ”The committee heard from almost every imaginable ethnic community in Australia, including various indigenous representatives as well, and those communities were all unanimous in their view that Section 18C should remain. Almost all those communities also supported process reforms.” He was among several MPs who expressed fears the overhaul will alienate ethnic communities.
18C.Indian Link
Indian Link contacted the offices of several Liberal politicians who had previously spoken against changing the wording of the Racial Discrimination Act or have an ethnic majority in their electorate. We received no response from John Alexander.
A spokesman for Craig Laundy told Indian Link, “Craig’s support of multicultural Australia and his diverse community in Reid are well known, as is his belief that Australians from ethnically diverse backgrounds should be protected from racial vilification. All Australians have the right to live free from fear of violence and racial discrimination. Since entering Parliament, Craig has at every opportunity sought to promote his wonderfully diverse community.”
He continued, “Following a Government Party Room meeting this week, the Government agreed on reforms to Section 18C based on recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. Whilst the legislation will remove the words “offend, insult, humiliate” from section 18C of the RDA, importantly the word “harass” will be inserted. The new proposed standard of ‘harass or intimidate’ will more directly target serious conduct which is at the heart of racial vilification.”
“The Government’s reforms seek to strike the right balance by strengthening the protections against hate speech based on race, whilst also enhancing freedom of speech. They will also amend the complaint-handling processes of the Australian Human Rights Commission.”
A spokeswomen from the office of Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told Indian Link, “Her views on this issue are well known and have been widely reported. She is thrilled to have had the reasonable person test included in the reforms.”  It seems as though a directive had gone out from the top not to engage with the media; a concerning lack of free speech in a debate concerning free speech.
As Labor Senator Sam Dastyari said, “Where the debate has been heading, is simply about greenlighting how offensive people can be. It’s not necessarily about the laws itself, it’s about the signals we send as a society.”



The government has proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Do you understand what these changes mean?
Yes, completely      36%
Yes, somewhat        41%
No, not really          13%
No, not at all           10%
Do you think the changes will lead to more racism in the community?
Yes                  56%
No                   14%
Can’t say         30%
Does the proposal to make these changes influence the way you intend to vote in the next election?
Yes, this will change my vote                        37%
No, other issues will determine my vote        30%
Will have some influence on my vote           33%
Have you or anyone you know ever been the victim of a racist slur or attack in Australia?
Yes                  73%
No                   27%
Region of birth
AUS/NZ                  25%
Asia                         56%
Europe                    9%
Sth America            2%
North America        2%
Africa              6%


Some responses from our survey
“They think hate politics can win especially after Trump’s victory. Anglo votes are over 60% and whites are still a majority. So if the government can give a hope to the majority to establish white supremacy, that may get them unaligned votes.”
“They’re changing it because the once moderate Turnbull is a wholly owned subsidiary of the hard right of the Liberal Party and the IPA.”
“They’re right-wing racists and bending to the populist extreme-conservative vote. They are mostly white so have never been on the receiving end of racism and don’t understand the depth of its prevalence and harms.”
“If you believe 18C is something that needs to be addressed, then sorry but you’re a racist.”
“This is pandering to the right wing and continuing the distraction from the struggling economy and their inability to enact meaningful legislation.”
“I believe that since Malcolm Turnbull has not come out with any other policies that have successfully gone through, he needed something to look strong and win his party’s support. Bill Leak’s death just served as a trigger for it.”
“These changes are needed to prevent baseless complaints, to try and define the behaviour that is discriminatory in more black and white terms.”
To see what the proposed changes mean click: WHAT WOULD CHANGE

Kira Spucys-Tahar
Kira Spucys-Tahar
Kira has a passion for politics, and enjoys puzzles, bad jokes and cuddles with her cat.

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