Multicultural Australia has celebrated the rejection of proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act by the Senate last week.

Thousands of people from diverse backgrounds including mainstream Australians gathered on Friday evening 31 March at Haldon Street in Lakemba and walked to Perry Park in a show of respect for all and community harmony against hate speech and bigotry.

The Walk for Respect, an initiative of Mr Tony Burke, Labor Member for Watson and Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia, is an annual event, first organised in 2014.

Tony Burke speaking at Perry Park, Lakemba. Photo by Yusra Hadi.

In a jubilant atmosphere of friendship, people pledged against racism and hatred and were treated with live music, drumming, lion dance, family BBQ and inspiring speeches by politicians and community leaders.

Mr Burke said that this Walk for Respect is not only a message for those who want to propagate racial hatred but also to those who are targeted, offended and humiliated by racial abuse.

“Australia is not a place of bigotry and hatred, we are a country of many backgrounds and many stories which make us strong and vibrant,” he said.

Jihad Dib speaking at Perry Park, Lakemba. Photo by Yusra Hadi.

Mr Jihad Dib, State Member for Lakemba and Shadow Minister for Education was overwhelmed by the presence of people at the Walk for Respect from various faiths and ethnic communities and the multicultural environment at the event displaying unity in diversity.

“This is a message for every single person who thinks it’s okay to spew hate; it is not okay to spew hate and we are not going to take it and we are not going to accept it,” he said.

The parliamentary report on changes to Section 18C of The Racial Discrimination Act was ironically handed down on Australian Harmony Day, Tuesday 21 March that also coincided with United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Attendees of the Walk for Respect in Lakemba. Photo by Yusra Hadi.

Then on, the Turnbull government unveiled plans to reform the legislation, which would retain the word ‘intimidate’ and replace the words ‘offend’, ‘insult’ and ‘humiliate’ with ‘harass’.

The changes were supposedly made to ensure freedom of speech but were seen by minority groups as a green light for racial vilification and bigotry.

However, on Thursday 30 March, the Australian Senate blocked the Federal Government’s attempt to change the wording of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Thirty-one senators including Labor, The Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and Jackie Lambie voted to keep 18C; while 28 senators, Liberal/Nationals, One Nation, Derryn Hinch, David Leyonhjelm and Cory Bernardi voted to remove 18C protections.

Attendees of the Walk for Respect in Lakemba. Photo by Yusra Hadi.

The current wording of the legislation, and its balancing counterpart exemptions highlighted in Section 18D represent a genuine attempt for civil and respectful communication. Section 18D balances the objectives of Section 18C by exempting ‘anything said or done reasonably in good faith’ such as artistic work and genuine publications.

The issue was hotly debated in various government and community forums where the Liberal/National parties supported the changes to Section 18C while Labor, The Greens and many ethnic organisations and minority groups opposed it.

Justifying the changes to Section 18C, Mr Turnbull said, “Free speech is at the very core of our party; it should be at the core of every party.”

Taking its cue from PM’s statement and using her right to free speech, One Nation Senator, Ms Pauline Hanson publicly said “Islam is a disease” and Australians need to “Vaccinate ourselves from it”. She started a campaign with the hashtag “Pray 4 Muslim Ban” after the terrorist attack on UK Parliament. However, the PM was quick in condemning her anti-Muslim statement.

Attendees of the Walk for Respect in Lakemba. Photo by Yusra Hadi.

In a briefing held at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 29 March, Labor leader, Mr Shorten gathered the press and members of the multicultural community in Canberra to make clear that the Labor Party will continue to fight to ensure that the changes to 18C were never accepted and attacked the government’s lack of empathy over the issue.

“There is no freedom of speech crisis in this country. The Labor Party will not retreat on this issue and we will be successful,” he said, predicting the defeat of the changes in the Senate next day.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Minister for Multiculturalism Ray Williams hosted a media conference for multicultural media organisations in the Parliament House, on Harmony Day Tuesday 21 March.

Attendees of the Walk for Respect in Lakemba. Photo by Yusra Hadi.

She discussed key issues in the community and the concerns raised by members of the multicultural community regarding the Proposed changes to Section 18C. She confirmed twice stating that she was comfortable with the status quo and has no issue leaving things as they were.

In regards to the Hijab and freedom of practising one’s faith within society, she told the Australasian Muslim Times during the press conference that “As long as people practice their faith without harming others, it should be fine. People should be comfortable to dress as they wish as long as it does not provoke or inflict harm to others in the community.”