UnitingJustice Australia National Director Elenie Poulos and Dr Mark Zirnsak of the Justice and International Mission appeared at a Melbourne hearing of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry that is considering whether to keep the contentious 18C and 18D sections of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Ms Poulos said that the committee had been very receptive to the Church’s case.
“It went well, the committee was eager to hear about the Church’s commitment to stand against racism and of any experience of racism on the ground we had seen,” she said.
There has been a sustained call by some in public life and in quarters of the media to remove section 18C that makes it unlawful for someone to perform an act that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity.
Section 18D balances this against exemptions to protect freedom of expression that are done in “reasonable or in good faith”.
The Uniting Church believes the coverage and commentary around high-profile cases including those concerning News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt, News Ltd cartoonist Bill Leak and students from QUT have given a wrong impression of how 18C operates.
“There is a sense whipped up by some media outlets and opinion makers that with 18C to offend and insult merely means to hurt feelings but that is not the case,” Ms Poulos said.
“Courts set the bar very high for a successful complaint but the impression out there is that the bar is set very low.”
Ms Poulos pointed out that 18C complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission trigger a thorough process of investigation and reconciliation, which means only a very small fraction ever go before the courts.
In its written submission the Uniting Church argued that the toll of racism takes on society can be easily underestimated.
“The Uniting Church Assembly believes that it is important to acknowledge that many people in Australia operate from a position of privilege and are not able to accurately or fairly assess the serious impact of racial hatred on an individual who is different from the,” the submission reads.
“As already noted above, the unacceptably high levels of systemic and continued racism and the often devastating impacts on the wellbeing of individuals are well documented.
“Reducing the protections against racial vilification will risk further alienating people who have been targets of racial hatred.”
Ms Poulos said that it was important to recognise the harm that racism does.
“The church has a long history of standing against racism which can really hurt the health and wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole,” she said.
“At a time of increasing racial division around the world and in Australia it is more important than ever that we set a high standard.
“Our aspiration should be to have no racism. It’s really important to have robust laws to hold us to high standards.”