The Right to Free Speech in Australia

Australia is caught in a dialogue of the deaf over words that are construed to display prejudice or harm. Attorney-General George Brandis has released a draft "Freedom of Speech Bill" which would remove references to offending, insulting and humiliating people or groups and instead would outlaw vilification and intimidation.

Those who consider that the law should continue to protect them from feeling unhappy or humiliated by words uttered by others are being challenged. As an Asian who moved to Australia decades ago and ran into demeaning prejudice, I feel uniquely qualified to comment.

Australian citizens require freedom of speech consistent with a free, democratic country governed by law. Like me, some of them would have survived the racism of the White Australia era.

Untouchable immigrants

Migrants are adventurers, according to Australian immigration officials of yore. To seek to settle among foreigners requires a certain mental toughness. We are not wimps. We do not whinge when someone speaks in a slighting manner to us or attempts to humiliate us for entering their territory, even legally.

Having been in the country when a massive immigration entry policy was introduced in 1949, I have heard immigrants from Britain, the mother-country for most Anglo-Australians, addressed pejoratively as Poms. There seems to be no agreement about the meaning of that term.

European immigrants, most of whom had to learn English after arrival, were commonly described as ‘reffos’ (because some of them were Displaced Persons – displaced by World War Two) or ‘wogs,’ and chastised rudely for attempting to communicate in public places with fellow-immigrants and refugees through an admixture of European languages.

Asian entrants, on temporary visas, all well-educated students from mostly Britain’s colonial territories, were subject to displays of prejudice and overt acts of discrimination. ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from, you black bastard?’ was my first exposure to Australian prejudice.

Those Australians who were ‘yobbos’ (the unavoidable ignorant ones) or who felt culturally superior to both immigrants and students did display their prejudice, and even their acts of discrimination, freely. The targets for utterances of prejudice were occasionally our preferences for food, described as ‘foreign muck’ or our use of spices and other condiments; more commonly, the principal targets were skin colour (Asians only), accents, or the way we seemed to be indifferent to voiced disapproval. That really upset them (as it was intended to).

Since European immigrants clearly respected Asian cultures, I was able to converse with a large number of immigrants over the years. We discussed our experiences, past and present, and exchanged recipes (yes, that too). I was introduced to Greek, Austrian, and Italian food at cafes and restaurants; and invited to Yugoslav, Czech, Dutch, Latvian, and English homes for meals. It was two years before I was invited to an Anglo-Australian home.

Significantly, not one European or Asian expressed to me any concern about hateful words by Anglo-Australians –the only ones who behaved badly. Like my maternal grandfather and my father, both of whom had been migrants, we immigrants and students in early post-war Australia displayed that capacity to ward off any oral rubbish thrown at us, in the manner of a duck shrugging water.

Australia-born Chinese (the ABC), Indians, Lebanese, and an Icelander had no difficulty in dealing with us Asian students with friendliness. This is not to deny that, in day-to-day transactions, the Anglo-Australians we dealt with ranged from civil to helpful.

The lesson for prejudiced Australians was this: ignorance cannot breach cultural confidence!

Protection from discrimination

The Racial Discrimination Act provides protection from discrimination. What is discrimination? An act (not words or looks) denying a right, including equal treatment, equal opportunity, natural justice, and any other normal freedom (not something newly-crafted in this age of entitlements and expectations). I am not sure how effective this law is in terms of discrimination against skin color, culture, religion, etc., including that ephemeral concept of race. What exactly is a race?

My understanding of race is that it arose when European colonizers claimed that the white race is superior to all other races, who were obviously all colored. To hold that line, white East Asians and Central Asians had to be allocated a skin color each. In reality, these Asians are visibly more white, relative to the European white, which is not a clear white. Does the Act then offer protection to white Asians only according to country of ancestral origin or nationality? Or, do aggrieved persons seeking protection under this Act have to define themselves the way ethnicity is defined – by personal choice – but within the outdated colonial classification?

Then there is the crucial question: should protection from discrimination not apply to all residents? Should it not cover gender or age discrimination, without regard to color, culture, religion, origin, or whatever? The ferocious tribalism I had to cope with as a public official was untouchable.

As well, would this Act have countered the discrimination I faced in the years of white Australia? We Asians (and Aborigines) were the last to be served in shops. Advertised accommodation would disappear as soon as we showed ourselves. A vacant seat on public transport could remain vacant even as passengers were strap-hanging. This was in addition to the prejudice commonly displayed through abrupt gruff voices by serving staff; or patrons challenging our right, loudly through their conversation, to be in a pub. What bothered such rude people was our demeanor. It seemed to arouse a mental conflict: the superior white could not cope with ’coloreds’ who did not behave like coolies.

I prefer all forms of discrimination to be barred by legislation, with an appropriate authority required to take action when a plaint is proven; not many people can afford to go to court to seek a remedy.

Tolerance of free speech

Is there any substantive evidence that utterances of statements indicating dislike, prejudice or even hate, however hurtful, actually cause damage? If so, what sort of damage? How easy is it to claim to be hurt, and then damaged? Compare such a claim with the history of claims for compensation for bad backs in the olden days (jocularly described as “Mediterranean backs”), repetitive strain injury (RSI), “whiplash injury” to the neck, and psychological trauma (a wonderful catch-all). Were the government to offer money as compensation for feeling hurt or even humiliated, the national budget would be blown within a year, with a waiting list of claims as high as Everest.

How is it, when the large flow of white post-war migrants, followed by, a generation later, the trickle of colored migrants, did not claim to be hurt by pejorative words, now some ethnic community leaders assert that their communities need the protection that some Holocaust survivors and Aboriginal spokespersons explicitly reject? How representative of the feelings of their communities are the claimants of denial of free speech? (How would they know?)

Did the misguided multicultural policy of the 1980s leave a residue in terms of imagined ethnic sensitivity? When Prime Minister Howard and Premier Carr replaced multicultural policy with a citizenship policy, which thus emphasized similarity and commonality, rather than difference, a few ethnic community leaders did protest loudly at being dethroned. As well, in my four non-fiction books, all of which have been recommended by the US Review of Books, I have consistently plugged for unity from ethno-cultural diversity for Australia. Indeed, we are already on the way to cultural integration, if our children and grandchildren, ably supported by our school teachers, have a say.

On the basis of a highly interactive and contributory life as an adult over more than 6 decades, I say that we do not need to stifle free speech. We have the right to counter yobbos in high places or with loud voices, to debate any pertinent issue which might arise from any diatribe, or just shake off any silly statements. Or, return an attempted insult thus: as a friend and I left a bar, I said to the loud-mouth fellow who had made derogatory remarks about us ‘Haven’t you got a mother, either?’

To sum up, racist comment did not, does not, and should not touch the surface of those of us who are confident of who we are. Ignorance too needs an outlet.

Raja Arasa Ratnam is Australia’s former Director of Policy on refugee and humanitarian entry and an an émigré