Australian-Filipina community leaders join the growing chorus of voices against controversial changes to Australia’s anti-racism laws.

Lolita Farmer, Order of Australia Medal (OAM) recipient and a long-time advocate of women’s rights, has drafted a submission to the Attorney General’s office, calling on the government to withdraw changes to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) proposed late last month.

The section in question, which could be removed, is 18C of the Act, which makes it unlawful for someone to do an act that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity.

Lolita Farmer OAM

Lolita Farmer OAM

Atty. Farmer, president of the Global Filipinos Australia (GFA) said that while GFA and other Filipino groups understand the good intentions of the government, which hopes to change the Act to remove limits on freedom of speech, she is concerned that the reformed Act can only perpetuate racial prejudices.

“We say ‘hands off, don’t touch RDA’ for the strongest protection of all Australians against bigotry,” she said.

Similarly, Josefina Musa, radio broadcaster and community leader, has also written a letter to Federal MP, Ed Husic.

“Dealing with the social unrest that arises from bigotry and racism is a cost to both our legal system and to our welfare system. Bigotry and racism in our workforce adversely affects our productive capacity. The international embarrassment to Australia from local bigotry and racism adversely affects our international trade and tourism,” she wrote.

The sections to be removed, 18C and 18D, have been effective in prohibiting racial hatred, according to several government inquiries including the National Inquiry into Racist Violence.

These inquiries found that racial hatred and vilification can cause emotional and psychological harm to their targets, and reinforce other forms of discrimination and exclusion.

The inquiries also found that seemingly low-level behaviour can soften the environment for more severe acts of harassment, intimidation or violence.

The need for both sections were also illustrated by the number of complaints under 18C received by the  Australian Human Rights Commission, which rose 59% last year.

Atty. Farmer and Musa are just the latest to air their concerns. Last week, the Alliance of Philippine Community Organisations (APCO) has started a petition, with one of the association’s spokespeople, founding president Cen Amores, stating that section 18C is an important legislation in a country as culturally diverse as Australia.

One of APCO’s petition signatories is Migrante NSW, another community body that has been one of the early supporters of migrant rights, including protection against domestic violence – a key issue for Filipina women who migrated to Australia in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Spokesperson Bernie Mallary said there was racial stigma around so-called mail-order brides from the Philippines during this period.

That was two or three decades ago now but the new development takes him back again to those days of racial prejudice.

“Attorney General George Brandis commented that people have the right to be bigots. We are astounded by that comment. Nobody has the right to bigotry; but we all have the right to be protected from bigotry and that right should be available to all, especially the most marginalised and powerless,” Migrante NSW wrote in its submission.

“We are also dismayed that the proposed changes to section 18C water down the definition of 'intimidation' to only threats of physical harm. Emotional and mental harm are very real and very damaging. The infliction of such harm is recognised as a crime in domestic and family violence,” it said.

“We say bigots often seek to inflict mental and emotional harm and this should remain condemned by section 18C.”

According to an ABC News article, more than 200 communities, including multicultural and ethnic communities, have expressed their concerns  to the Australian Human Rights Commission about the proposed changes.

The same article mentioned a Nielsen poll that found 88 per cent of respondents support Section 18C.

The community consultation will end in two weeks, on 30 April, and the Government may choose to abandon the reforms in the face of the public’s fierce objections or they may uphold the new law despite negative public sentiment.

To date, no community groups have supported the reforms.

Mallary believes that proceeding with the new law will create an “open season” where people can be racist with impunity. In response, Attorney General Brandis has written an opinion piece published in The Australian Jewish News.

In it, he wrote, “It is just not possible to have a vigorous argument about a political, social or cultural question without the possibility that another person might feel insulted, offended or even humiliated (mocked) by a point of view to which they have a passionate aversion.”

“The government welcomes constructive feedback on its exposure draft. We want to engage as many members of the community as possible in the process,” he said.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission website, there are around 100 cases that are currently dealing with Section 18C of the Act.

Government census show that the Filipino community in Australia is ranked as the fourth largest ethnic community in the country. More than 180,000 Australians are Philippine-born based on the 2011 census although the number of Australians with some Philippine-heritage is much higher.

Background reading

On 25 March, the Government proposed changes to the existing Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. The reformed Act will improve protection against “racial vilification” while at the same time remove a section (Section 18C) within the current Act that limit freedom of speech.

In a statement that came out of the Attorney General Senator George Brandis’ office, he said that this will be the first time that racial vilification will be proscribed in Commonwealth legislation.

But there is a trade-off. Under the proposed law, which is currently an Exposure Draft (open for community consultation before becoming law), removing the Act’s embedded restraints on freedom of speech means removing provisions that it is unlawful to publicly “offend, insult and humiliate” a person or group of persons because of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin.

The reformed Act, if approved, also means that a person can only complain about “racial vilification” as determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community.

Put another way, what all the legal mumbo-jumbo mean is that under the current RDA, you can pursue legal channels against a person who has offended, insulted or humiliated you because of your race or cultural background.

By contrast, under the reformed Act, you can not.

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