NATIONAL: The race discrimination commissioner has urged the opposition to rethink its proposal to repeal racial vilification laws.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has said a future coalition government would roll back laws which prohibit statements that offend on racial or ethnic grounds, as part of a “new debate about freedom of speech”.
They include those recently found to have been breached by commentator Andrew Bolt when he wrote that some “fair-skinned Aboriginals” choose to identify as Aboriginal for personal gain.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Helen Szoke told the National Press Club on Wednesday it was fine to review the balancing act of human rights but the opposition should look at the big picture.
“Most human rights are not absolute,” she said.
“This is particularly so in relation to freedom of speech. My right to freedom of speech should not extend to racial hatred.”
She said the laws also covered forms of race hate such as cyber-racism.
“I think it’s very important that we retain protections around race hate in the Racial Discrimination Act,” Dr Szoke said.
“We need to do that in the context of the changing nature of public comment.”
She said the Human Rights Commission was receiving increasing numbers of complaints about websites in which racial and ethnic communities were regularly abused, threatened and denigrated.
Dr Szoke referred to a recent controversy surrounding a Facebook page that had pictures portraying Aboriginal people as drunks who sniff petrol and bludge on welfare.
She encouraged social media websites to review their rules on content.
Australia should be mindful of the importance of protections from behaviour that “creates a climate of fear, a climate in which discrimination can thrive, and a climate in which violence can take place”, she said.
Asked if racial vilification should be criminalised, Dr Szoke replied it was worth considering.
“This is quite a challenging area … you have to have a system response to this if you’re talking about racially motivated crime … from the law enforcement agencies through to the courts and tribunals.”
Dr Szoke also raised concerns about racial discrimination in the workplace and said there was a cultural glass ceiling emerging.
She said some systemic racism was creeping into the employment sphere – in particular problems with recognition of overseas qualifications.