KIERAN FINNANE reports.
The culture divide on the Town Council was clear last night when the majority voted down Councillor Chansey Paech’s to get council to voice its opposition to the Federal Government’s mooted changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
Above: A post from the local Facebook page, criticised by MHR Warren Snowdon for its “racist” and ” demeaning” posts.
Cr Paech, who is of Aboriginal descent, said that as a person of “mixed ethnic heritage” he is not subjected to the “horrible things” that his relatives are – “because people don’t look at me and think that I am ethnic”. He said he would be “deeply disheartened” to see change to the RDA, which would “open up the doors to hate speech”.
Cr Melky supported him, while recognising the concerns of some that the RDA’s provisions (particularly Section 18C relating to “offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin”) could encourage “a litigious world”. Cr Melky, who was born in Lebanon and speaks Arabic as his mother tongue, said he experienced racial discrimination from day one of arriving in Australia. But he also said that the verbal insults, which he refused to let worry him, were nothing compared to the discrimination experienced in his home country where you could be shot for your difference – referring to the civil war that his family fled.
He feared though that many people were not as thick-skinned as he. The RDA offered them the protection of saying that people would not “get away with” saying offensive things. “I like this law,” he said.
Councillors had before them a report on the proposed changes to the RDA prepared by Director of Corporate and Community Services, Craig Catchlove. It included the wording of a motion passed by Darwin City Council – that “there be protection against racial vilification” – essentially in line with the Federal Government’s proposed amendments, making unlawful vilification and intimidation but removing offenses relating to offending, insulting and humiliating.
Cr Steve Brown said he would not support Cr Paech’s motion. On the basis of the director’s report, for which he congratulated him, he said the provisions of the Act are open to interpretation and “interpretation is an extremely dangerous thing” – what is extreme to one person may not be extreme to another, he said. He favoured council passing a motion similar to the Darwin council’s.
Cr Heenan was of the same view, and similarly congratulated the director, which Cr Melky had done also. He would also support a motion similar to Darwin council’s.
Cr Kudrenko noted the responses to the director’s report as an acknowledgement that this is a complex issue on which it is to difficult to present “an unbiased point of view”. She said the report was “heavily weighted” on articles from The Australian, while she had also looked at submissions to the Attorney-General from the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services to gain “a different perspective”.
She was critical of the Darwin motion as “so obvious” and hoped council would support Cr Paech’s motion as a way of saying that racial vilification is not acceptable in our “extremely diverse” community, something “always embraced in everything council does”. Support for Cr Paech’s motion “would be a great way of putting this across”.
“People fear this topic,” she said, seeing it as infringing on their freedom of speech, but that freedom needed to balanced against other rights and those least protected needed to be afforded some protection.
Her colleagues were unpersuaded, with Crs Brown, Heenan, Douglas, Bonanni and Mayor Ryan all of voting against the motion, which means they do not oppose the Federal Government’s amendments of the Act watering down its provisions. This was a show of hands and not a formal vote. The matter can be revisited at the end of month’s formal meeting.
KIERAN FINNANE reports.