You’ll hear the phrase “free speech” a lot in the context of the government’s acrimonious internal debate about changing the Racial Discrimination Act. In fact, it has virtually nothing to do with free speech, and everything to do with the peculiar sense of victimhood that lurks on the right in Australia.

What’s forgotten now is that, when the Abbott government moved to amend the Act, Attorney-General George Brandis actually produced a fairly useful form of words to replace the terms “offend, insult, humiliate”, after consultations. Brandis proposed to add the concept of “vilification” to the Act, and at the lower threshold that currently exists in law, while retaining “intimidate” from the existing act. Exhausted by this momentary display of competence, Brandis then completely wrecked the chances of successful change by declaring “people have the right to be bigots”, neatly encapsulating all the possible objections to the change. But his amendments were worth more consideration than they received.

The version now being pushed by Malcolm Turnbull at the behest of the right is a poorly balanced substitute for Brandis’, leaving “humiliate” in and adding harassment but omitting Brandis’ idea of vilification. A smart government would add vilification while removing dumb terms like “offend” and “insult”. But it’s been a while since this government was accused of being smart.

As for what exactly the change would do — in the unlikely event it ever makes it into law, given the opposition of NXT in the Senate — we had a taste from that vile Q Society dinner earlier this year where the murder of LGBTI people was seen as fit material for “jokes” and failed politician and failed broadcaster Ross Cameron made a goose of himself (again). Changing 18C is unrelated to the practical world of free speech in Australia. The big threats to free speech in this country are defamation laws, the enthusiasm of the legal industry for suppression orders and other forms of censorship that infantilise the community, the lack of media diversity, the dearth of independent, well-resourced civil society bodies that act to protect freedoms, and the lack of a rights-based legal framework that would enable them to do so. 

Advocates of the repeal of 18C — Derryn Hinch excepted — have never shown any interest in addressing these real threats to free speech. Indeed, advocates like News Corp and the Institute of Public Affairs actually want to make them worse through media ownership deregulation, opposition to any form of a bill of rights and even expanding the powers of corporations to litigate against critics.

That’s because, as powerful participants in public debate — media companies, politicians (especially senators, who don’t have the odious task of dealing with actual constituents like their House of Reps colleagues), corporate-funded thinktanks — they already have all the free speech they need. What motivates them, instead, is the idea that there is any impediment to using their power against those they wish to attack: people who criticise them, and particularly people who are different to them and who have the gall to challenge them. There’s a reason why nearly all the advocates of changes to 18C are powerful white conservatives, and why their preferred targets are Indigenous Australians, and LGBTI Australians, and Muslims.

Except, they don’t see this as the powerful attacking those with less power — they see themselves as actual victims, unfairly constrained in what should be a natural right to wield the power gifted them by wealth, politics and our lingering socio-economic favouritism to old white people as they see fit.

But that’s why 18C is barely even a tenth-order issue for the electorate at large. Most Australians are too busy paying the mortgage (or trying to save for one) or raising their kids, to nurse a grievance about restraints on their power. Few of them have much power – instead they’re tossed about by economic forces far beyond their control on employment and housing affordability and childcare. Worrying about 18C is a privilege for elderly, wealthy white people like those who form the Liberal Party’s ageing base, with enough time on their hands to obsess about Indigenous and LGBTI and Muslim Australians and the imagined slight of not being able to demonise them like you could in the good old days.

As for free speech, the real impediments will persist. Indeed, many of those lobbying for the repeal of 18C prefer those impediments just where they are.

Peter Fray

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