Mon, 29 Aug 1994

Australia mulls over racism controversy

A public debate is now going on in Australia centering on the question of whether or not to legislate against racist violence.

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE(JP): Should perpetrators of racist violence be punished more severely than those of other types of violence?

Australia's federal politicians are indeed considering this possibility. Irene Moss, now a Magistrate of New South Wales, until recently the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, reported that racist violence was on the increase and that greater legal sanctions were needed to stem the tide.

After receiving a number of representatives from community groups concerning racist violence, Moss and Ron Castan QC conducted the National Inquiry into Racist Violence. The Inquiry, announced in December 1988, was motivated by widespread community concern about the increase of racist attacks, both verbal and physical.

During 1988 a number of church and community leaders and other prominent anti-racists were subjected to what seemed to be a well-organized campaign to intimidate them or deter them from their activities. These people were subjected to systematic intimidation, having their car tires slashed and their homes or places of work damaged by bricks thrown through windows and defaced with graffiti.

They also received death threats by telephone and mail. In the 535 page Racist Violence Report of National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, published in 1991, Moss and Castan QC have documented incidents of racist violence against aborigines and ethnic groups other than Anglo-Celtics.

While Australia already has the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) outlawing any act that can be construed as racial discrimination, the court only has powers in civil proceedings.

Several states, such as NSW and ACT, have amended their Anti Discrimination Law to include provisions which make acts of racial vilification criminal offenses. The report clearly urges that racial violence be recognized as a social problem, and therefore not be tolerated in contemporary Australia.

It recommends that commitment to an inclusive non-racist Australia be translated into policy, in legislation and law enforcement agencies as well as in other areas.

In December 1992, a bill to outlaw racist violence was introduced in the Federal Parliament. If passed, racist violence and racial vilification will be made criminal offenses punishable by substantial prison terms. The desirability of this law is still being debated in parliament as well as in the community.

Opposition to enactment of the law comes from individuals and bodies concerned with civil liberties and freedom of expression. The term `racist violence' adopted by the Inquiry includes verbal and non-verbal intimidation, harassment and incitement to racial hatred as well as physical violence against people and property. The opponents of the law see problems in its enactment.

While the effectiveness of the law is questionable, there is the risk of stifling freedom of expression. As writer/journalist Linda Jaivin says, `Making racist speech illegal won't put an end to racism.' Jaivin quotes Britain as an example where racial vilification is outlawed yet racial tensions are still prevalent.

So what protects vilified minorities from persecution and violence? Acts of violence are already criminal offenses. It is then up to the judge or magistrate to take into account the attacker's motivation, in considering sentence.

Proponents of enactment of the law argue that racist violence has many faces which may cause long lasting damage in the community. Organizations promoting and inciting racial hatred and hostility may cause mentally unstable individuals to persecute certain groups in the community, causing them a great deal of anxiety and anguish.

While the hostility is usually based on irrational sentiments, the victims of racist violence are entirely helpless to do anything about their situation, barring undergoing plastic surgery. It can be argued that while the law should protect the freedom of expression in the wide community, it should also guarantee the same freedom in an ethnic community which is frequently vilified.

The problems facing the legislators are not confined to ways of proving a particular act of violence being racially motivated. Frank Brennan of the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, points out that in Australia nowadays, a great deal of vilification is exchanged between members of minorities whose relatives are at war in their home countries. When there is mutual racial violence between two warring minorities, who should the prosecutor prosecute? Should the law only apply to cases where there are definite perpetrators and definite victims?

To avoid legislation, a mass education campaign has been proposed and carried out through the media and schools, with limited success. Naturally, victims of racist violence will look to the law as the last resort. There is no doubt the challenge to the enactment and enforcement of the criminal law, if passed, will be enormous. However, abandoning it may mean leaving the victims to their own devices, which may lead to extrajudicial vendetta and counter-vendetta.

Dewi Anggraeni is a journalist and writer based in Melbourne.