The Attorney-General George Brandis while proposing to water-down the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) 1975 in 2014, famously said, “People do have the right to be bigots” – what for many seemed a shocking statement. 

A “bigot” is intolerant towards those holding different opinions, often regards members of certain racial, ethnic or religious groups with hatred and intolerance; while that person’s own beliefs are often unreasonable or excessively narrow-minded.  The Qur’an however teaches, “Let not hatred of a people swerve you from justice (5:8) “even against yourselves” (4:135).

Surely, in a sane society, people need to be tolerant and understand each other while still being forthright to criticise shortcomings. The RDA permits this, except as stated in Article 18C where a public act is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group and is done because of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin. It is mitigated by exemptions in 18D such as any genuine academic, artistic, scientific or other genuine purpose in the public interest.

After the Federal Elections, big journalist ‘guns’ in the powerful elite Murdoch media group, which controls 70% of Australian capital city newspapers and sizeable interests in national broadcasting, have repeatedly hammered 18C claiming it hinders free speech. However, what are at stake are harmonious relations between all Australians and protection for vulnerable groups, such as Aborigines, Muslims and Jews.

Media power can be seen in the last elections where the LNP government was elected by a bare 0.75% margin of the popular vote.  The ALP would probably have won Government if not for heavy criticism of Labour by the Murdoch media before polling day, which itself provided an estimated 2% swing against Labour. It is dangerous if greater power through 18C amendments is given for certain elites to conduct unreasonable, unbalanced attacks against vulnerable minorities.

Human Rights Commission President, Gillian Triggs should have advised the Aboriginal litigant in the QUT case earlier that there was no merit in her case. Negative consequences led Malcolm Turnbull to announce recently a parliamentary enquiry to recommend whether the law should be changed.

Many defend Bill Leak’s right in The Australian cartoons to stereotype outback Aboriginal men, especially the one where a drinking Aboriginal father asks a policeman what his own son’s name is.  Although the message contains some truth, it is unbalanced as it does not consider the historical negative role mainstream society itself provided in weakening traditional Aboriginal society, culture and religion, including respected institutions of the family and tribal leadership –  through warfare, eviction, and forcibly removing children from parents.

This weakening, as well as promotion by some mainstream politicians and businessmen to introduce alcohol and gaming into isolated Aboriginal communities was often fatal for well-being. Such cartoons will likely have more negative consequences than positives for rural Aboriginal identity. The Australian rarely publishes opponents’ criticism. Reasonably, should Australia permit such unbalanced cartoons; or alternatively, ensure meaningful redress for offended parties to publish widely their rebuttals?

Muslims and other minorities should stand vigilant to ensure protection remains with Article 18C to safeguard against vilification. Professor Triggs rightly suggested the words “insult” and “offend” be replaced with “vilify” so as to strengthen the Act.  Judge Ron Sackville’s idea to proscribe language that degrades, intimidates or incites hatred or contempt, also holds merit.