Talking tough on 18C from the safety of parliamentary privilege

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If MPs – protected by parliamentary privilege – believe Section 18C and D impede freedom of speech, parliamentary rules should be amended so they too can experience humiliation in the workplace, writes Simon Tatz.

THE PARLIAMENTARY INQUIRY – recommending changes to Sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act – was conducted by politicians who are rarely subjected to the type of humiliation, insult or abuse this legislation is designed to prevent.

Currently, it is unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people because of their race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin. But we have an increasing number of parliamentarians and media commentators claiming that they are offended by this law; that it impinges on their right to free speech — that is, to offend, insult and humiliate others.

The Parliamentary Inquiry into Freedom of Speech was managed by MPs who hide behind protections that do not apply to the rest of us. MPs are protected by privilege. This arcane concept means the speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate president have the authority to control language deemed to be "unparliamentary". Unparliamentary language protects MPs from even the most benign of insults or humiliations. Hansard records show that referring to a fellow MP as a “little fat arrogant twit” or a “ratbag”, or even the mild rebuke of “liar”, is deemed offensive.

One MP had to withdraw after saying of his opposite:

“... that man over there has the brains of a cabbage."

One senator debated with the Senate president after she ruled the word "bugger" was offensive and should be withdrawn. As was pointed out, this "offensive" word was being broadcast on TV as a popular car advert and, yet, it was deemed too odious and distasteful for the delicate sensibilities of members of parliament.

The occasional swear word has made it onto Hansard, but the reality is that MPs cannot be subjected to offence, insult, or humiliation, let alone the type of low-level sexist, bigoted, racist or antisemitic language that many in the community will be increasingly subjected to if the laws are weakened. The only recourse Australians currently have is the law; unlike MPs, we cannot ask an offender to withdraw their insulting and humiliating remarks.

It is ironic that the shrill cries about "freedom of speech" emanate from a shielded clique who reside in a bubble that is so far removed from what is often called the "pub test".

If these MPs truly believe their freedom of speech is impeded by legislation such as 18C and 18D, they should move to have the rules governing privilege amended so they too can experience offence, insult or humiliation in their workplace. But having worked for many MPs, I know first-hand the role political staffers play in shielding their elected boss from abusive, insulting and hurtful emails and telephone calls. I’ve been at the receiving end of the vilest, antisemitic, racist and homophobic insults — hurtful and humiliating insults that are rarely experienced by politicians, because a staffer’s job is to filter, delete or somehow handle this abuse. The reality is that political staff are the armour that shields MPs from the incredible hate that exists, especially around race, sexuality and religion.

The stance by some in the media similarly reeks of double standards. Radio shock-jocks have their calls screened, protecting them from being subjected to offence and insult. Live radio operates on delay, allowing broadcasters to immediately cut off callers who may insult or abuse them, or cause offence to other listeners. They would never allow someone to get on the air and say what they think. No "freedom of speech" for the shock-jocks' callers.

The loudest voices demanding "freedom of speech" are from privileged, protected white men who represent the majority race, religion and sexual persuasion. There’s not much you can say (or draw) that really humiliates and insults a well-off, white, heterosexual Christian male. One could comment on their physical attributes, note their intellectual limitations, maybe suggest a range of anatomical and biological practices they could try to perform, but none of these insults comes close to the real pain caused when one is humiliated and insulted about their skin colour, sexual identity, race, ethnicity or religious beliefs.

Being the victim of religious or racial insult and humiliation hurts in ways not comprehended by the "freedom of speech" brigade. The consequence of removing or changing the 18C/D protections will be an unfettered licence for discrimination, prejudice, bullying, victimisation, homophobia, and exclusion. Those who argue that people should ignore, dismiss or shrug off insults, humiliations and offensive language fails to grasp the consequences — especially on young and often vulnerable people.

If the law is watered down, then the impact will be felt by minority groups, not politicians or the media. If 18C is to be repealed or amended to allow for "freedom of speech", then these changes should be also adopted in Parliament House and on talk-back radio.

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