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March 28th 2014 print

Frank Salter

Section 18C, Multiculturalism And Power

To its supporters section18C is the mechanism by which enemies can be given "the Bolt treatment." That capacity to harass and silence represents a potent weapon, one not to be surrendered without a fight. If Abbott and Brandis manage to repeal section 18C it will be a close-run thing

boltAndrew Bolt has raised the issue of power in the debate over the government’s election promise to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which he was found to have contravened in a 2011 court case. In his television program, The Bolt Report of March 23, he asked why the opponents of repeal are so strong. It is an excellent question. Power is a key factor in politics. It would certainly help us understand the debate over section 18C if we knew which groups have greatest influence over government policy. Does Australia have an ethnic hierarchy and if so, who is on top?

Because the repeal of section 18C is hotly contested, the controversy is a natural experiment for testing the influence of the opposed sides. Which are the most powerful voices in setting ethnic policy (domestic ethnic affairs, elements of immigration policy, and indigenous affairs)? Without fierce opposition the repeal would have proceeded with despatch, because it reflects the opinion of the Prime Minister, his close colleagues and the balance of the parliamentary party and because the Coalition has a mandate for repeal due to promises they made during the recent election. Yet the Government’s proposed amendments, announced on 25th March, though a significant improvement, represent a climb down from full repeal. The Racial Discrimination Act itself was never challenged despite its illiberal provenance, content and administration.[1]

James Allan: Fixing 18c — Not Perfect But Close To It

It remains to be seen how the courts will interpret the changes should they become law. But it is not reassuring that the proposed replacement for 18C would criminalise inciting racial hatred, the sort of fuzzy, endlessly interpretable provision favoured by the multicultural lobby. The proposal also represents a loss for the lobby but not a clear-cut defeat. They will retain the strategic gains made over the last four decades, including a coercive apparatus of legislation, commissions, courts and associated officials and academics developed to suppress white free speech. The lobby’s pressure on the Government over recent months caused the latter to vacillate and compromise.[2] The moralistic rage of critics from Labor, the Greens and minority leaders should not obscure their partial victory. They may get more. Hopefully the Government will stand firm but it was on the defensive after releasing the draft legislation. They were successfully portrayed by critics as promoting bigotry.[3] It looks as though 18C will be reduced but survive.

Section 18C is being defended predominantly by the multicultural lobby, a coalition of the political left and minority activists. Opponents of repeal include politicians such as the Opposition leader Bill Shorten. Its most energetic and passionate defenders are ethnic activists representating the Indigenous, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities.[4] The fact that the lobby is leading the charge in favour of section 18C provides a measure of its power and thus a test of theories of political multiculturalism.

Conventional assumptions about multiculturalism do not sit well with the power demonstrated by 18C supporters. Multiculturalists valorise their movement as a noble fight back by victimised “subaltern” ethnic groups against the “dominant” majority. The theory also holds that minority activists are motivated only by equality, social justice and an understandable love of their people, while Anglo loyalists are usually racists or at the least in need of close monitoring. As Al Grassby, the “father of Australian multiculturalism”, stated, racism “was introduced to Australia with the arrival of the First Fleet”.[5]

The reality, as demonstrated by the fight over section 18C, supports a different view, that the multicultural movement is formidable compared to its opponents, even though the latter represent the great majority of citizens. Analysts such as Katharine Betts, David Brown and Mark Lopez have observed that political multiculturalism is empowered by a coalition between the ideological left, various minority ethnic groups and pragmatic politicians seeking media support, minority votes and donations.

The polarisation evident in the debate over 18C points to ethnicity being a motive on one or both sides. The ethnic activism of the minority pro-18C voices has already been described. The anti-18C voices are largely Anglophones: Janet Albrechtsen, James Allen, Andrew Bolt, Neil Brown QC, Nick Cater, Gary Johns and others.

Are the anti-18C voices ethnically motivated? Their ideological similarity indicates not. If identity politics was at work one would expect them to come from diverse ideological backgrounds, united only by ethnic goals. This is the situation with the pro-18C side, who present an unlikely assemblage of bedfellows: secular politicians and ethnic partisans, Arabs and Jews. It might be argued that the minority component of this coalition are not motivated by ethnocentrism but by a shared victimhood that elevates the importance of ethnic defence. But such an argument, far from denying intense ethnocentrism, explains it.

There is little if any symmetry between the sides in ethnocentrism. The non-Anglo supporters of 18C generally identify publicly with their ethnic communities, are loyal to them and represent them as full or part time activists. Ethnic identity is central to their lives and politics. Those opposed to 18C rarely mention the subject, let alone evince loyalty or join an ethnic support group. They are individualists with weak ethnic identities and no affiliations with ethnic defence agencies. They are suspicious of if not repelled by Anglos who show minority levels of ethnic commitment.

The difference between the two sides can be summed up in psychological terms. The advocates of section 18C usually have “explicit ethnicity” (when they are not Anglo universalists), while the opponents of 18C have “implicit ethnicity”.

Explicit ethnicity involves adopting ethnic welfare as a conscious goal, leading to purposeful efforts to further that goal. This fits the reaction to Andrew Bolt and section 18C. It seems that because Bolt was perceived as antagonistic to Aborigines he was seen as a threat to all members of the multicultural alliance. The moralistic, harsh and sometimes bizarre criticism of him is typical of the ethnic passions that so often inflame ethnic relations around the world. Bolt was shocked to find himself accused of having views resembling eugenics, the Nuremberg race laws and the Holocaust.

To its supporters section18C has emotional significance because it is the mechanism by which future enemies can be given the Bolt treatment. The section is a valued weapon in the armoury used by the multicultural “discourse police”, to use Betts’s phrase.[6] That is why Greens spokeswoman Penny Wright saw Government draft legislation to change 18C as “the Andrew Bolt protection bill”.[7] Multiculturalism has always been hostile towards Australia core Anglo identity. In practise the movement has been predicated on intolerance and intimidation directed at silencing critics, so it is understandable that minority activists are wedded to section 18C.

Implicit ethnicity is much weaker and diffuse. It does not much engage the conscious mind and can even be opposed by the person’s ideology. A person might instinctively associate with fellow ethnics – a human universal – while doing nothing political to defend his ethnic group and even criticising such behaviour as “racist”. None of the critics of 18C argue from an explicitly ethnic perspective.

The differences between explicit and implicit ethnicity affect the two sides’ relative political influence because explicit ethnicity is a far more powerful motivator than is implicit ethnicity. Highly motivated minorities (religious, ethnic, business) are often more effective lobbyists than much larger but more relaxed majorities.

One advantage of the anti-18C side’s low ethnic motivation might be the ability to make coherent arguments. This is the impression given by comparing opposed statements. First some background. An issue central to the debate over 18C is whether it should be legal to hurt someone’s feelings on racial grounds. That is because the section states that it is an offence to do something “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people”. Andrew Bolt was found in breach of the section because of the tone of his articles. This has incensed free-speech advocates who see 18C as empowering the Commonwealth to police normal social interactions.

The debate has stalled at that point because there is no coherent response from the pro-18C advocates. Instead they dwell on the hurt feelings or their own outrage caused by racially offensive language, as if that answers the initial criticism. Perhaps it was this unresponsiveness that led the Attorney-General George Brandis to escalate his rhetoric on March 24, declaring: “In a free country, people do have rights to say things that other people find insulting or offensive or bigoted.” The Prime Minister concurred: “Our freedom and our democracy fundamentally depend upon the right to free speech. Sometimes free speech is something the people who listen to it do not like.” [8]

This position attracted non-sequiturs from the Labor opposition. Bill Shorten, the opposition leader, stated that “No one has a right to bigotry, and racism has no place in the modern Australia.” By omitting “should” Shorten made a simple factual error. Labor Senator Nova Peris, an indigenous Member of Parliament, criticised Brandis: “The Attorney-General’s comments are disgusting; they are a green-light to racism and all other sorts of hate speech.” A more pertinent response would have told listeners whether Brandis’s proposition, which was an empirical one, was true or false.

One can only speculate about the cause of such irrationality. Perhaps it was the speakers’ low perception of their audience. Perhaps it was collateral damage from the general decline of education and the politicisation of the universities; or the undeveloped state of public discussion of ethnicity; or terms of abuse such as “racist” also being employed in analysis. It might be due to the influence of ethnic passions, or unholy alliances between secular politicians and ethnic loyalists.

Whatever the cause, rationality does not represent a winning advantage for the anti-18C side because it does not proof politicians against lobbying. In the end, politics is about power, not truth, and an unreasonable viewpoint can hold sway if backed by donations or favourable media coverage. Sadly in modern Australia political power does not always grow out of logic. Neither does it derive ineluctably from majorities. The explicit ethnocentrism behind multiculturalism has been overpowering implicit Anglo identity politically for forty years or more. It will continue to do so until Anglo Australia becomes a full partner in the multicultural spoils system or, preferably, the multicultural infrastructure – legal, administrative and educational – is dismantled root and branch.

Resistance to repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is a measure of the illiberal character of Australia’s inverted ethnic hierarchy. Even if the Abbott government manages to repeal section 18C, it will have been a close run contest.

[1] The Act overrides state law because it invokes the federal foreign affairs power based on the Whitlam government signing the Orwellian UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. See Salter, F. K. (2014). “The misguided case for indigenous recognition in the Constitution. Part II: Race and the culture wars [https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2014/01-02/misguided-case-indigenous-recognition-constitution-part-ii/].” Quadrant 58(1): 32-40.

[2] “Racial discrimination repeal likely to be scaled back”, The Australian, 20 March 2014.

[3] Dennis Shanahan (2014). “Fighting for freedom of speech eerily similar to a defence of bigotry”, The Australian, 26 March 2014, pp. 1, 4.

[4] “People have a right to be bigots, says Brandis”, The Australian, 25 March 2014, p. 5.

“Race act set for radical reshaping”, The Australian, 18 March 2014, p. 6.

[5] Grassby, A. J. (1984). The tyranny of prejudice. Melbourne, AE Press, p. 15.

[6] Betts, K. (1999). The great divide. Sydney, Duffy & Snellgrove, p. 300.

[7] “PM tackles backlash to bigot remark”, The Australian, p. 4.

[8] “People have a right to be bigots”, op cit.