Migrant groups fear racial discrimination bill

In light of the federal government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, the Sun gauged community reactions to the plan.

Under the proposed changes, provisions making it unlawful to ‘‘offend, insult or humiliate’’ based on someone’s race would be removed and a new clause added banning racial vilification.

The public has until April 30 to respond to the Bill released in late March, which will alter legislation first introduced by Gough Whitlam in 1975.

Attorney General George Brandis said a new, ‘‘properly-worded’’ section of the Act would achieve both objectives of protecting freedom of speech and the freedom to publicly discuss race, while also protecting against racist conduct.

But some migrant groups are concerned the changes will increase the likelihood of public racism.

Jane Corpuz-Brock, CEO of the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Associaiton at Harris Park called on all communities to hold wide-ranging discussions on the consequences of changes to section 18C of the Act.

‘‘We have to ensure that any change we propose [has its] foundation on equity and harmony based on social justice,’’ Ms Corpuz-Brock said.

Manager of Granville Multicultural Community Centre Paula Chegwidden said the centre does not support the proposed changes.

‘‘We agree with the comments of the Australian Human Rights Commission President, Professor Gillian Triggs that the proposed changes will reduce the current protections against racial vilification and that the exemptions are very broad – allowing for a possible increase in racial vilification within public discussion,’’ Ms Chegwidden said.

The Igbo Community of Australia, which represents African-Australians, called on Tony Abbott to view with caution any changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to ensure ‘‘unintended consequences’’ are avoided.

‘‘Law makers should take into serious consideration the concerns and constributions of people and communities from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to ensure that changes, if any, consolidate rather than undo the gains of social harmony and mutual respect that Australia has made in the last few decades,’’ Igbo secretary Augustine Okereafor said.

Bernie Mallary of Migrante NSW, a Filipino-Australian alliance, said the changes would cause ‘‘disunity’’ in Australia.

‘‘[They] will open the gates to increased vilifying, humiliating, bullying because of a person’s colour, ethnicity, traditional attires,’’ Mr Mallary said.

President of Blacktown’s SydWest Multicultural Services Noel Hiffernan said the government was giving bigots the opportunity to convey their hatred for others.

“We all have a right to our private opinions... but to express your bigotry in a public place is not to the best interests of the country,’’ Mr Hiffernan said. “People in Blacktown will see the changes in the legislation as being a reaction and get on with their lives and live harmoniously.’’

Asked why the changes were necessary, a spokesman for Senator Brandis said while racial vilification would never be acceptable in Australia, ‘‘laws which are designed to prohibit racial vilification should not be used as a vehicle to attack legitimate freedom of speech’’.

He said the exposure draft strengthened protections against racism by including for the first time in Commonwealth law a "specific prohibition" against racial vilification.

Asked about the proposed changes, Parramatta lord mayor John Chedid said: “While I condemn racism in any shape or form, this is a complex legal issue which is the sole responsibility of the federal government. I’m keeping my focus on local issues.’’

Questions to Prime Minister Tony Abbott were not responded to before the Sun’s deadline.

A copy of the exposure draft is available at ag.gov.au.

Submissions can be sent to S18Cconsultation@ag.gov.au until April 30.

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