SYDNEY - Jewish leaders in Australia are bracing for a potential showdown with the new Liberal government over its pre-election pledge to repeal sections of the nation’s race hate laws, which make Holocaust denial and the promotion of anti-Semitism unlawful.
Tony Abbott’s government, which entered federal parliament for its first sitting Tuesday following its landslide victory in September, is preparing to scrap sections of the Racial Discrimination Act that have been successfully used by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry to litigate against Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, far-right groups and religious extremists.
Introduced in 1995, section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for someone to engage in an act that is reasonably likely “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone on the grounds of their race or ethnicity.
But Attorney-General George Brandis said last week that the first bill he will introduce into parliament will tighten the definition of racial discrimination to safeguard freedom of speech.
“You cannot have a situation in a liberal democracy in which the expression of an opinion is rendered unlawful because somebody else...finds it offensive or insulting,” Brandis was quoted as saying.
But Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, whose great grandmother perished at Auschwitz, slammed Brandis, saying the current law “protects our society from the poisonous effects of hate speech.”
“When Senator Brandis says that repealing these laws is in the interests of freedom of speech, what he really means is freedom to engage in public hate speech,” said Dreyfus. “These provisions are aimed at stopping extreme cases of hate speech.
“Unfortunately the link between racial vilification and physical violence has been demonstrated recently,” Dreyfus said, referring to an attack in Sydney last month in which five religious Jews were brutally bashed by a gang of youths.
Three alleged gang members were arrested and charged at the scene. Another gang member was charged Tuesday, police said.
Jewish leaders this week defended the law they’ve used to litigate against those who sought to racially discriminate against Australian Jews.
Jeremy Jones, a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, used section 18c to win a landmark case against Fredrick Toben, Australia’s most notorious Holocaust denier.
The ECAJ also cited this section in its successful litigation against Olga Scully, a serial promoter of anti-Semitic propaganda in Tasmania; against an Arabic-language newspaper in Sydney that published anti-Semitic commentary; against a far-right political party alleging that Jews created the Internet to control information; and against a fringe Christian group that claimed the promotion of anti-Semitism was part of their faith.
“Without section 18c we wouldn’t have had [victories over] Scully, Toben, One Nation, El Telegraph or the Bible Believers,” Jones told Haaretz. “There is no rational argument that Australia is somehow ‘less free’ when bullies have consequences for their actions.”
Jones added: “If and when this law is reviewed, it is imperative that the victims of racism, and their rights, remain the central concern in the minds of decision-makers.”
Danny Lamm and Peter Wertheim, of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the wholesale repeal of sections of the law would have consequences.
“[It would] not only remove the means available to vilified groups to defend their reputations legally, it would also remove a key impediment against different ethnic and national communities vilifying one another in public discourse.
“It would thereby open the door to the importation into Australia of the hatreds and violence of overseas conflicts,” the pair said.
While Jewish leaders openly welcomed the election of the Liberal Party in September following a turbulent relationship with the Labor Party six over the last six years, the Liberal Party’s pre-election pledge on the race hate laws is the one issue causing angst within the Jewish community.
Joshua Frydenberg, the sole Jewish MP in government, declined to comment on the issue.
On the eve of the election the party promised that “any changes we make to the law would not give license to Holocaust deniers.” Government officials have also promised to consult with Jewish leaders; that has not yet happened.
But a spokesperson for the Attorney-General said Brandis will consult widely before any amendments are proposed.
It is unlikely it will be proposed in the three final sitting weeks before Christmas, the spokesperson said, meaning any amendments will likely be tabled in the new year.