Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Researcher discusses government approach to discrimination with students


Jeremy Sammut giving his talk after formal dinner

Researcher for Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies, Dr Jeremy Sammut, argued in favour of repealing Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) when he spoke at Warrane on Wednesday 28 May 2014.

A Research Fellow in the CIS’s Social Foundations Program, Dr Sammut pointed out that Section 18C, which makes it illegal to “insult, humiliate, offend or intimidate a person on the basis of race”, was legislated by the Labor Keating government in 1995 was having far-reaching consequences.

“This is the law that conservative newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt ran foul of when he was held to have written racially offensive articles about Aboriginal identity and entitlement,” he said, “a case which has touched off a still-running debate about free speech.

“This debate has also encompassed a larger debate about the character of Australian society in general with regard to the always hot-button issue of racism.”

Dr Sammut argued that since the 1960s the Humanities in Australian and overseas universities had been controlled by “the new class of politically motivated academics”.

“Foregoing the traditional academic values of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, the new class has deliberately pursued a political agenda that has been obsessed with the question of power relations and how certain groups in society use power to oppress assorted victims along class, gender and race lines,” he said

The Keating government’s plan for a multicultural republic, he said, was the “new class scholarship translated into a political project. It was therefore a pretty interesting time to be studying Australian history at university and it has allowed me to become familiar with the new class consensus on Australia as a racist country,” he said.

“On one level it is very hard to argue with this proposition. The White Australia policy was the first piece of legislation passed by the new Commonwealth parliament in 1901. But it always seemed odd to me for the new class to deny the passage of time and the evolution of national attitudes.

“It doesn’t take much work to discover that the White Australia policy was scrapped in the 1960s and that the development of a non-racially discriminatory immigration policy starting with the post-World War II immigration program had transformed Australian into perhaps the most peaceful and successful multi-racial society on earth.”

Dr Sammut said the short version of his explanation of how the nation overcame its racist tendencies was that as national attitudes evolved, the national ethos became “colorblind and a fair go was extended to all Australians, old and new, regardless of colour or creed”.

“This is the line that I am still repeating this year for bargaining in support of the repeal of section 18C — that is, that it is the national egalitarian culture, not the law restricting speech, that is responsible for keeping the nation on the whole tolerant and harmonious,” he said.

“Even as a callow undergraduate, it appeared to me that the new class was ignoring huge chunks of our national history and was doing so to make a political point that would advance their radical agenda of remaking the national identity. Even more importantly, the story they told of persistent racism did not tally with my own family and personal experience of migration, inter-marriage and integration with Australian society and of the freedom to make the best of ourselves without encountering race-based structural barriers.

“What shocked me about the New Class, particularly when I was studying history, was that they were like strangers in their own country. If the progressive consensus could be wrong about the fundamental qualities of Australian society, which seemed to be obvious to anyone who cared to have an honest look, what else could the consensus be wrong about?

“This was the question the national identity debate lodged in my mind. Answering the question in a range of different areas remains the basis of my work as a think-tanker.”

Dr Sammut said the perspectives he had been able to bring to the debate about the repeal of Section 18C involved challenging the argument by opponents of changes in the law that the changes would “unleash the racism latent in Australian society”.

“My retort is that lifting the restrictions on free speech will not unleash racism, because we had already developed the foundations of a tolerant national culture well before the racial discrimination act was legislated in 1975, let alone before Section 18C was added in 1995,” he said.

“Much of the Section 18C debate has focussed rightly on the question of free speech — that in a free society people should be able to say what they like and it is a dangerous business for authorities to get into the business of regulating speech.”

Dr Sammut pointed out that Australia’s Anti-Discrimination Act was based on the British Race Relations Act of 1965. In Britain by the late 1970s the Race Relations Act was under challenge because it was argued that it was not working properly.

“This was because of a very controversial politician by the name of Enoch Powell who was not able to be prosecuted for making speeches questioning the rationale for mass migration to Britain from the former colonies of the British empire,” Dr Sammut said.

“This was because it was necessary to prove intent to incite racial hatred. Intent was therefore removed as a requirement for prosecution for use of threatening, abusive or insulting language — a precedent and precursor for what would become Section 18C in Australia.

“One of the arguments used in favour of the repeal of 18C is that it will remain a crime under state laws to incite racial violence. This is dismissed by supporters of 18C because their objective, and I think the objective of hate-speech laws in general, is not to preserve the peace but to use the law or ‘lawfare’ as it has come to be called, to achieve a political objective and that is reinforcing the progressive consensus about controversial topics.

“The British experience bears this out. The aim of amending the Race Relations Act is to shut down the discussion of immigration started by Powell. Not only is this legal maneuver inherently opposed to free speech, it is also deeply anti-democratic since it is based on the view that some topics are unfit for public discussion and deliberation by the citizenry.

“The progressive consensus that immigration should not be discussed extends to Australia where there has traditionally been bipartisan agreement that we do not talk about multiculturalism or immigration and it is based on the view that any discussion will foster racism or rather that it will stir up the latent racism presumed, wrongly in my opinion, to be at the centre of our national character.”

Dr Sammut said that despite Australia’s success in the past 60 years, mass migration and multi-racial societies remain a “grand experiment” — a virtually unprecedented experiment until the second half of the 20th century.

“I think it is important to periodically assess how the experiment is going in order to detect and address potential problems,” he said. “I also think that free discussion is important in order to instill public confidence and create support for immigration. If responsible people and politicians do not talk about immigration, the danger is that irresponsible people will exploit the concerns and I think there are many examples currently going on in European countries which I could cite to prove these points — for example the success of the National Front in France.

“We don’t need to look overseas, however. During the period of the Keating Government attempts to discuss immigration and multiculturalism ran up hard against the progressive consensus. The reply, in the worst anti-free-speech tradition was that you can’t say that because it is racist, with the legislating of section 18C the institutionalised expression of that sentiment.

“There was indeed a community backlash against the shutting down of debate in the form of the rise to prominence of Pauline Hanson in the late 1990s. The Hanson example shows that it is politically self defeating and in fact dangerous to try to suppress free discussion.”

Dr Sammut argued that laws restricting free speech are bad for society and for democracy.

“The only way in a democracy that political leaders can acquire legitimacy, let alone real power. is by channeling the collective mind of the public,” he said. “The way the collective mind is formed is by free discussion of issues as competing interests compete to shape and define the collective meaning of the public mind.

“Laws that restrict free speech are therefore the antithesis of democracy and represent the end of politics in a free society.

Dr Sammut said the rights of everyone as a citizen are at stake in the debate over Section 18C. “The so-called right of others not to be offended restricts that democratic right to fully and freely discuss subjects of national importance,” he said.

During the question and answer session following his talk, Dr Sammut was asked if he agreed with the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd’s decision to apologise to Australia’s Aboriginal people for the stolen generations.

He said he agreed because he thought that if only on a basic human level, “we cannot ignore the human tragedy that occurred for all those families and for all those people”.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]