Ideas@TheCentre

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The political significance of the section 18C debacle

Jeremy Sammut | 08 August 2014

jeremy-sammut Many Australians think that multiculturalism means better restaurants. I doubt they thought it meant that Muslim and other ethnic lobby groups would wield the power of veto over important national policies.
 
That the sectional interests of organised ethnic groups might subvert the national interest has long ranked high among the concerns about multiculturalism articulated by critics on the centre-right.
 
That such concerns are legitimate has been verified by the debacle that is the Abbott government's decision to break its election promise and abandon its commitment to abolish section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
 
When announcing the policy U-turn, the Prime Minister said that the government's push to restore free speech in Australia had complicated negotiations with the Muslim community over new counter-terrorism laws.
 
This was a remarkably frank and alarming admission. It implied that Muslim organisations would not join 'Team Australia' and back measures to stop Islamist fanatics harming innocent Australians of all creeds and colours unless the government caved in on section 18C.
 
The Abbott government has not only sold out the democratic right to free speech of all Australians to help itself politically with the ethnic lobbyists and 'human rights' lawyers opposed to repealing section 18C. What is worse are the political consequences of the government's actions, which are likely to embolden the Muslim lobby at a time when it is discovering just how much political muscle it can flex.
 
In response to the war in Gaza, some state and federal Green and Labor MPs have publically condemned Israel, and one federal Liberal MP has encouraged Australia to adopt a 'more neutral stance on Israel.'
 
These calls to revise Australia's traditional, bi-partisan foreign policy of support for Israel are motivated by raw political calculation for the reasons set out by former Foreign Minister Bob Carr in his diaries released earlier this year.
 
Carr's book detailed the circumstances surrounding the rolling in Cabinet of the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012, which led to Australia abstaining on the vote in the United Nations General Assembly on the recognition of Palestine's observer status at the UN. Carr explained that the Cabinet-revolt was in response to electoral concerns that the original 'No' vote in the UN backed by Gillard would see the Labor Party lose support among Muslim voters in key Labor seats in South Western Sydney.

The final indignity of this sorry episode is the fact that one needs to worry whether it is legal to discuss its political significance. With section 18C still on the statute books, who knows who might take offence and decide to wage some 'lawfare' to shut down debate about a subject of national importance.

Dr Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. He wrote about section 18C in the July-August edition of Quadrant.