Serge’s Column – May

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Good day to you all,

When I wrote last month’s column, I had no idea that my little “Happy from St Kilda” project would go viral. It has now reached over 75,000 views in 174 countries! Of course, I am happy as it has been so popular and so well-received.

Many residents have been telling me that they did not realise how lucky we were to live in such a wonderful place. One long-time resident has even decided to stay after contemplating moving to the country! If you have not seen it, check it out on YouTube and share it with your friends so we can reach 100,000 hits! And I also encourage you once again to see Aaron Wilson’s debut movie Canopy. Aaron directed “Happy from St Kilda”. A unique and great film. At the movies now.

The last month has gone so fast, especially while I was Acting Mayor when Amanda Stevens was on leave. I realised what an honour it is to be serving my community. Thank you to all who have helped me in my task.

As the Chair of the Port Phillip Multi-Faith Network, it was suggested to me that the City of Port Phillip take a strong stand against the changes proposed in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1975. I moved a motion to this effect at our 22 April 2014 Council meeting. This is very important to me and I thought I should share my views with you, the St Kilda News readers. The motion was passed 6-1. Below is an edited version of my address to Council:

The Federal Attorney General has indicated that he wants to change the Anti-Discrimination Act and has asked for people and organisations to make submissions on the proposed changes. The rationale behind the changes is the importance of protecting the notion of freedom.

A recent poll that came out last week shows that 88 per cent of Australians disagree with the contention that it should be lawful to offend, insult or humiliate a person on the basis of race. Even if I personally feel that 12 per cent agree or don’t express an opinion is sad, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane says that: “It demonstrates clearly that the proposed changes are unwarranted or unwanted.”

What is proposed is to water down the current law and most multicultural, Indigenous or religious organisations have strongly objected to any changes. I agree with the Commissioner that: “Racial tolerance is a pillar of Australian public morality. Our society is committed to civility, decency and tolerance. Race relations should be placed above politics or ideology.” This was the case in 1995 when changes were made under Paul Keating’s prime-ministership. Back then, these issues were subject to a strong debate like it is today and in a bipartisan way, Parliament tried to get the balance right and most probably did as the laws have worked well.

What would the changes achieve?

They would weaken protection from racial vilification. I am concerned, as are most legal experts, about the broad category of exemptions. Also, the amendments to the Act place an onus on the general public to determine what is acceptable and act in accordance with individual belief structures and potential biases which is difficult to establish. The “reasonable person” test does not necessarily sit well with tolerance.

While it might be generally assumed that the majority of Australian citizens value diversity and equity in everyday life, the Act in its current form provides safeguards and assurances that society, as a whole, will act in a way that ensures cultural safety and respect for all.

The Act in its current form provides Australia with a protection against racial intolerance and provides safeguards for minority groups to live free from judgement, prejudice and inequity.

The Act also ensures protections from less favourable treatment based upon race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status.

Having worked in the world of art and creativity, I am also concerned about the changes in Clause 18D which, in my mind, guarantees the protection of the freedom of expression.

The current Act protects the vulnerable from the powerful. As the Commissioner puts it: “Racial vilification laws exist to ensure that those who are silenced by discrimination at least have the assurance of knowing the law is on their side.” British philosopher Isaiah Berlin who is well-known for defending liberalism – and I have seen this quote used often as part of this debate – said: “Total liberty for wolves is death for the lambs.”

Until next month, ciao

Serge

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