I plan to make just a relatively brief contribution to this debate. It is a welcome opportunity, but I think enough has been said by others in the public domain and, indeed, in this debate on the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. There have been many views expressed throughout the debate, both publicly and here in parliament. I guess that is the beauty of what we are debating here—it is about the ability to express one’s views freely without being impeded unnecessarily. Free speech is a wonderful thing and it is a cornerstone of our democracy. Many have said it and I am a firm believer in it. It is a quality that we have in this country. Freedom of speech is a freedom we have in this country that many others around the world envy because they do not have it. It is part of what makes this country so strong, in my view.
I want to take issue, though, with a few things that have been said during the debate. The point has been made that this is not an important issue. Prior to the debate coming on this week, a number of senators and members in the other place indicated that they felt that this issue was not important. I, fundamentally, reject that: I think it is an important issue, and so do many other people in the community—those who support it and those who are against it. It is an important issue to debate and, indeed, to send the message that this is not an important issue, I think, is a bad one. It is a message we are sending to the QUT students. It is a message we are sending to Bill Leak’s family. To tell them that the plight of their suffering through the long-drawn out process that they have been subjected to is not important, I think, is a terrible message to send.
So it is important, but it is an issue that is as important as the other issues that we have been dealing with. We have been looking at issues this week like company tax reform, tax breaks for small business to encourage investment. We had childcare reform last week. We have been dealing with issues of health; education; foreign policy; jobs and employment; energy security, and penalty rates—all these things have been debated in this place. What has annoyed me is that those people, who have been claiming that this issue is not important, have been trying to characterise this debate as the only thing on the government’s agenda, and that is just not true. It is one of many things that have been debated and one of many things that people in our party room have been indicating they would like to discuss. I am glad we are doing that, along with all the other things that we are going to be spending a lot of hours tonight and, potentially, tomorrow debating. The government can walk and chew gum, and just to prove that—
Senator Cameron interjecting—
Senator DUNIAM: We can walk and chew gum, Senator Cameron, and I appreciate your contributions all the time. However, you know, we passed 12 bills through the Senate on Monday alone and, since the election, I am advised we have passed 83 bills. So to suggest that we cannot do anything—
Senator Dastyari: Now you are judging the government by how many bills you pass!
Senator DUNIAM: Well, passing bills is what we do here, and reducing regulation is a good thing too and many of those things, I hope, will do that, Senator Dastyari, through you, Mr Acting Deputy President Back. Some of the reforms we passed this week will make the childcare system better for people on the lower end of the income scale and our welfare system more sustainable through savings measures. But, as I say, to try and characterise this debate as the only thing on the government’s agenda is mischievous and misleading. As I have said, it is not our only platform.
During the debate, I was interested to hear of the test that is being applied to things that this parliament should deal with—that is, whether these issues are being discussed at barbecues. There are many things that this parliament deals with that people on the street do not discuss. There are issues—the mechanics of government, small reforms, streamlining of legislation, removal of red tape and regulation—which get dealt with here that the people of Australia do not sit at home and discuss. Just because they are not discussing it in every household and at every barbecue as a reason not to deal with this, is, I think, not a very good threshold for us to apply to the work that we should be doing in the Senate.
The point that is being made in relation to this legislation making it easier to be a racist in this country through supporting these reforms is a disappointing argument and, I think, a cheap one. The point was made in this debate in the previous contribution by another senator that Australians are better than what is being reflected in this debate. I suppose that is the point that I would like to make as well. Through the debate, those who are opposed to reform seem to be making the point that we need to protect Australia from itself—protect Australian people from themselves. I have to ask those who oppose reform: don’t we trust the Australian people?
It was the same with the marriage plebiscite legislation: denying Australians the right to have their say and conduct a debate in the community. We wanted to prevent that from happening, because we did not trust the Australian people to do it in a fair and civilised manner. That is a pattern I do not support. I do have faith in the Australian people, and I think Australians can conduct themselves in a way that is fair and not going to bring about hatred and civil disputes. I think that we should, as a Senate, have faith in the Australian people. That is what is good about our country: the decency of the people who live here—and that is what the majority of people in Australia are like. Of course there is always the minority, but we have to have faith in the majority of the people who live here.
For those opposed to reform, I just want to know why they do not have faith in the majority of Australians and why we need to regulate the behaviour of Australians when it comes to every facet of life. We are not a communist country, and we should not be trying to control every element of people’s lives and everything that occurs in society under the guise of trying to protect people from themselves.
As I said, there is a minority and, yes, we need to deal with them, but I do not think they should ruin it for everybody else. We have to, as I say, have faith in the majority, and that is what I believe these reforms intend to do. They will deal with those people who cause the problems, those who intend to do harm and racially vilify. I have to take issue, though, with a point made by Senator Watt in his contribution—I believe it was yesterday. Because the complainants lost in the cases that have been cited in the debate quite extensively—QUT and Bill Leak—therefore the laws are working and therefore they do not need to be changed. The point I make in response to that is: I have grave concerns about the way these processes went on for as long as they did. That is what many people are upset about. That is what the people who were subject to the complaint were upset about, and I think that is why we have having this debate. To have these drawn-out emotional rollercoaster events taking place in the lives of the targets of these complaints—I believe the changes target those problems and prevent them from happening into the future.
It is about protecting freedom of speech, preventing vexatious complaints and protecting people at the same time from the racial hatred that every single person in this place does not want to see in our community. It is the behaviour we all hate and the behaviour that we want to see stamped out in our community. And that is what is caught in the provisions of this bill.
I mentioned in my first speech that I married someone from another country. My wife and her family, when they came to this country, could not speak English. They did not have any assets. They had the clothes on their backs, and that was effectively it. My wife’s family, when they came out here, left a country, Albania, where they were not allowed to speak out on anything—on matters of politics, matters of religion or the most insignificant matters that we in this country can speak about freely, without fear of any repercussion. So I thought I would take the provisions of this bill and have a discussion with them. They have more insight into what it is like to be subject to racist slurs. Coming from another country and having had a poor grasp, in their initial years here in Australia, of the English language, they know what it is like to be subjected to racist slurs and comments of hate. So I thought it would be a good idea to have a discussion with them about the changes. Even more recently, though, I have to say they have been subjected to comments from members of our community, sadly, that many of us in this place would say were not the right thing to say to people from other countries, about their accents and where they have come from—’Go back where you’ve come from,’ and those sorts of comments.
In deliberating on that, as I say, I thought it was important to run past them the provisions of this bill: do they feel that this country should continue to regulate what people say to the extent that the current provisions of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act do? Because my extended in-laws—and there are now many of them in Australia—have been through more than I and many others in this chamber have ever been through, I valued their opinion, just as I value the opinions of those who have come into my office and made their views known, or at least sent me an email or made a phone call. But my in-laws, who have faced racism, slurs and derogatory language and who lived in a communist country where there were restrictions on things that you said and did, support the changes that we are putting up here. They have followed this debate with interest, probably because their son-in-law is a member of the Australian parliament but also because they take an interest in public life, and they support the changes. I take on board what they have to say. As they have been the subject of racial slurs, I think it is important to hear from them what they had to say. I was heartened by what they had to say. The other point they made to me when I consulted with them was that perpetuating these restrictions, the restrictions they left in their home country of Albania, is something they did not want to see.
On that point, it was concerning to read in The Australian today about the proposal from the opposition to potentially extend the scope of 18C to religion now. According to an article by Chris Merritt in today’s Australian, the opposition said:
… there was scope to reassess extending section 18C because the debate over racism had extended to religion.
I have grave concerns, and I hope sincerely that it is not the case that they plan to not only try to prevent the government’s legislation from passing through this place but extend these restrictions on free speech to make us even more of a nanny state. I think that would be the worst outcome for this country.
We do not need to be wary of the citizens of this country. We do not need to take the nanny state approach and constrain personal expression here. Contrary views can sometimes be confronting, as we know in this place, and can challenge the opinions we hold strongly. As I say, they can make us uncomfortable and can be a cause for us to revisit our strongly held views and rethink what we might believe is right. But that in this country, I believe, is a normal part of discourse in our society which we should stand to protect and uphold.