18C Now Being Used as Weapons in Personal Disputes

Last Friday we reported that a Federal Circuit Court ruled that a frivolous 18C complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act against three Queensland University of Technology was to be dismissed. The students simply disagreed with being kicked out of a computer lab in 2013 because of their race and the complainant Cindy Prior was triggered. The judge found the complaint had no prospects for succeeding in court but the Australian Human Rights Commission took Ms Prior’s complaint seriously and he even pressured three students into paying $5000 settlements and allowed the case to go to court.

In the aftermath of this decision the head of the Commission Gillian Triggs blamed the fact that the complaint got to a federal court on the fact that the Commission was forced to accept under law race discrimination based on a very low threshold while a court has a much higher threshold. She urged the federal government to change the law to allow for the Commission to only accept complaints of a higher threshold. Though she must realise that any change in the law will be opposed by Labor, the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team and Jacqui Lambie and is only attempting to deflect blame on this whole saga to the federal government. However in the same interview she justifies the Commission’s conciliation process which encourages complaints to be settled between the parties no matter how frivolous they may be. Of course settlement in Triggs’ mind means the respondent having to pay up money to avoid being labelled a racist. She calls this process part of social justice and even claimed that Cindy Prior’s complaint was made in good faith. So she asks the government to change the threshold for accepting complaints but defends the legitimacy of the existing process.

Because of the result of the QUT case and also the most recent 18C complaint against cartoonist Bill Leak, Liberal Party backbenchers such as Senator Dean Smith have been proposing to hold a parliamentary inquiry into 18C. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today announced there would be a joint parliamentary inquiry into 18C and how the Human Rights Commission deals with trivial racial discrimination complaints after further lobbying from backbenchers at the Coalition party room meeting this morning. Malcolm Turnbull had previously stated that the government had no plans to change 18C mainly because he knew it had no prospect of passing the Senate and seeing the failure of his predecessor Tony Abbott to introduce reform after he felt the wrath of the powerful ethnic lobby and eventually backed down.

It is clear now that after the QUT case has been dismissed and the fact that such a baseless complaint was allowed to progress as far as it did thanks to the Human Rights Commission, there is something seriously wrong with our law. That somebody who simply got offended and triggered by a fair comment was allowed use of our legal system for many years at great expense to us taxpayers to seek a remedy for their hurt feelings is a poor reflection on how debate and free speech operates in Australia. We should not live in a society where if we disagree with somebody we can then use the law to silence them and trash their reputation and descent into country full of legal warfare and that is the way we settle our differences.

The latest 18C complaint against Bill Leak for simply drawing a cartoon describing the dysfunction in remote indigenous communities is the latest example of ‘lawfare’ being used against a person somebody doesn’t like. The complainant in this case Melissa Dinnison claims she is so triggered by the cartoon that she fears returning to Australia from her holiday in Germany because Australia is so full of racism. It is clear from her social media posting that she holds a negative view of Australia and would be the type of person who wouldn’t mind making such a complaint. Even the Liberal Party itself is not immune from its members making an 18C complaint themselves despite it being the only major party championing reform. Party member Magdi Mikhail made a complaint against NSW President and North Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman because he accused Mikhail of being part of an ethnic branch stack at a state council meeting and Mikhail said he felt humiliated because of this robust exchange at a political meeting. We must not also forget Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjlem’s complaint against journalist Mark Kenny for calling him an ‘angry white man’ which the Human Rights Commission did accept. Leyonhjelm only made this complaint to highlight the absurd nature of the law.

Running to the government to punish people who say mean things and hurt our feelings is a symptom of a childish society. While the inquiry announced by Malcolm Turnbull is welcome development, nothing but a full repeal of 18C will once again ensure that we can have honest debates in Australia and people don’t have the potential for their lives to be ruined because somebody was triggered by a point of view they put forward. We are a mature and tough country, we should be able to handle debate and disagreement. The law should not be used to settle our personal disputes, we are better than this.