Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (18:08): The parliament has spent too much time on this. When I move through the country and my own electorate I can honestly say that I am not bowled over by people who are saying to me we need change on 18C. I can honestly say that it has never happened to me. It is a boutique issue that is more controversial in the coalition party room than it is in the community.

That should not always be the marker for what we spend time on in this place, but it is relevant. Quite often we speak about things that are not a heated exchange within the community but are important to the fabric of our nation or to the future of our democracy. This is not one of them. I note that in the last 12 months only 77 complaints were made under 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and fewer than four of those complaints ever proceeded to court.

I want to contrast that with complaints that were made to the Fair work Ombudsman. Last year alone, over 400,000 calls were made to the Fair Work Ombudsman, over 340 infringement notices and 118 compliance notices were issued and over 50 court proceedings were initiated. I stand with those who say these are things that we probably should spend more time debating in this chamber, and as you make your way around the community I am sure you will find the treatment of people in the workplace, particularly our young people, to be an issue of greater concern than something that most people have never heard of, section 18C of a piece of legislation.

The member for Warringah joined the debate again last week. He is a political bull in the coalition china shop. In opposition he promised that he was going to be the champion of free speech in this country. As Prime Minister he did consider amending this part of the law. He back-flipped on that, for good reason. Presumably, he was advised and accepted the advice, not only of security agencies but of the rest of his cabinet and of the rest of his backbench, and of all the government agencies who know something about this. He learned that repealing 18C—in fact, even raising this matter in the way it was being raised—was going to take Australia down a self-defeating path. It was going to be against our national security interests. He learned that to maintain our personal safety and national security it is necessary to work with the community, and particularly community leaders, to ensure that Australian values prevail, to ensure that the freedom of speech that we cherish is not compromised. Law does have a place in protecting us, in helping us to meet the existential challenge of national security threats, but we win the battle with our enemies when we win the battle of ideas. Laws are good but culture is much more pervasive. Freedom from hate speech, I argue, is better done by example, and we have a place in this House in setting the example.

There are some people who want to duplicate the politics of the newly installed President in the United States and see that as a pathway to political success. They must be resisted. What we say, what we tolerate, what we amplify, what we condone, what we condemn in this place sets a powerful example to the rest of the community. The hate speech that has been directed recently against the CEO of Australia Post is a case in point. For mine it was a sad day when in the Australian parliament a man who has led the recovery of an organisation that employs around 30,000 Australians in just about every town in the country, including jobs in regional and rural areas, had to address the personalised denigration of himself and his religion. It should be irrelevant. Mr Fahour told a Senate estimates hearing this week that he was proud to be an immigrant who came to Australia, who has worked hard, who has worked his way up to some of the highest positions in the finance industry and now in a government business enterprise. He is proud, and we should be proud of him as well. His success is an answer to the ugly bigotry against those of the Muslim faith or any other faith for that matter. He said:

The law of this country is the most important thing for me - through the law it allows us to practice privately our beliefs and to live peacefully and contribute and that’s what it’s all about, contributing.

What more could we ask of those who come from another country or who have another faith from those we share than to contribute in that way?

Australia's successful multicultural nation is the shining testament that makes a mockery of those from ISIL and their fellow travellers, in this community and elsewhere. The Racial Discrimination Act helps to maintain the sensible boundaries of freedom of speech within our multicultural society.

Freedom of speech has never been unrestrained in this country, from the time of the first convicts. It was restrained at first by lash, then by law, but more forcefully by social norms—by social norms about the things that we find it acceptable to say and not say in this country. We are a nation that celebrates our egalitarian nature, but we have to understand and acknowledge, particularly as representatives of our electorates in this place, that everybody has an equal right to say things within the boundaries of the law, but we also have to acknowledge that not every voice has the same force. So, when we stand up in this place or in our electorates or somewhere else and say things—in fact, whether it is said at the pulpit or the mosque or the synagogue or the dispatch box—we have a responsibility for the things that we say and the social forces that they unleash.

I want to say a few things to my friends on the Left of Australian politics, because the comments that I have made so far might fairly be directed at those on the political Right, to the extent that those terms mean anything. I say to those on the political Left that we cannot condemn the attacks on the free speech of publications like Charlie Hebdo while demanding at the same time that a cartoonist like Bill Leak be sacked or vilified because he has published a cartoon that we do not agree with. As much as I might find that cartoon nasty or tasteless, we cannot be doing both of those things at once. So my answer, if you find that cartoon or that publication offensive, is: don't buy it, don't read it—or, better still, do a better cartoon, a funnier cartoon, a more pertinent cartoon that responds to those sorts of things.

We have to find the balance, and I think our current laws find that balance between freedom of speech and freedom from hate speech. I think we have spent enough time already in this parliament debating these things when there are so many other things that should be occupying our consciousness, our time and our efforts in this place. I happen to think that the fight against racism and intolerance is something that we should do every day; we should do it by example. We should do it by the things that we condemn and the things that we condone, the things that we amplify, the things that we praise. But let us not waste the valuable time and the valuable resources of this important institution by occupying ourselves with something that is going nowhere. The majority of Australians will shake their heads and say: 'We elect you to deal with more important things and things that are directly relevant to our day-to-day lives. We want to see you fighting for a better education system, for jobs and job security, for the future of our industries, for the future of our health system.' These are the things that we should be focusing on, not this.