Author: Amy McQuire
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The furore over Bill Leak’s death, and the effect it had on the RDA shows again that the dominant class do not value Aboriginal life, writes AMY MCQUIRE.
In the acres of coverage in The Australian newspaper’s over-the-top tribute to late cartoonist Bill Leak this month, one stood out. It was by national political editor Simon Benson, and outlined how Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had come to change his stance on the Racial Discrimination Act’s section 18c, following the death of his long-time buddy Leak.
Turnbull had been one of the dissenters when his predecessor Tony Abbott tried to push through changes to the act back in 2014, the days where George Brandis proudly proclaimed people had a ‘right to be bigots’ (a fact we know all to well judging from his own party’s record).
According to Benson, on the morning of Leak’s death, and before hearing of his passing, Turnbull had secured agreement from Cabinet to amend 18c in a three-hour meeting.
After Leak’s death: “Turnbull choked back tears when he lead a memorial service at Sydney Town Hall… Leak had made a lasting impact on the Prime Minister’s life over the 31 years they had known each other – roughly half of both their lives.
‘Bill Leak was accused of racism because of a cartoon, because of a cartoon,’ Turnbull told the assembled mourners. ‘Bill should have grown old and even more wiry.’
Benson continued: “The case against Leak in the Human Rights Commission under 18c, terminated before he died, was based on a complaint about a cartoon confronting an uncomfortable, tragic truth of indigenous (sic) social dysfunction.
“It had riled Turnbull. Just as the case against the QUT students had started to shape a determination to deal with what he had long believed was an absurdity. ‘Why should it be illegal to hurt someone’s feelings’, Turnbull would tell colleagues. The two cases became the catalyst for the decision he announced (on 18c).”
This article is startling in its lack of self-awareness, but it shows the extent to which Leak’s death played in the Coalition’s decision-making. It’s been said that the amendments to section 18c can basically be called ‘Leak’s law’.
The fact that a law offering a very weak protection to the most vulnerable in this country can be amended to suit the sensibilities of a privileged white cartoonist, so powerful he even has the ear of the Prime Minister, speaks volumes to this country and the lives it affords most worth to.
The Human Rights Commission reported that for the year 2015-16, 21 percent of complaints received were made under the Racial Discrimination Act – and of that, over 50 percent came from Aboriginal people. Of the 429 complaints made under the RDA, 77 were made for ‘racial hatred’ – and only 5 were made based on media representations, 2 were made for racist propaganda, 6 for comments on an internet forum, and only 1 on public debate. It’s hardly a groundswell of claims. It’s hardly the field of persecution against ‘freedom of the press’ the Australian likes to proclaim it is.
We have long known that the furore over section 18c is not about ‘freedom of the press’, but rather about the sensibilities of privileged white people who can’t deal with the fall out of their racism, who are so sensitive to any true accusation of ‘racism’ that that they ironically, choose to play the victim despite claiming minorities, particularly Aboriginal people, are clinging to ‘victimhood’. Nevertheless, we know that section 18c is weak, and is very hard to contravene given the broad exemptions outlined in 18d. We also know, despite the misrepresentations of mainstream media, that RDA does not make offending someone based on race a criminal offence. As the Human Rights Commission notes: “Where a court finds a contravention of the Act, it may make orders for an apology or a correction, and/or award monetary damages.”
This complete misrepresentation was characterised by a recent tweet from Sky News’ commentator Paul Murray who claimed: “Changing 18c isn’t about legalising hate speech – for me it’s about deciding what speech should be criminalised.”
When you get basic facts wrong, you know what kind of ‘debate’ this is. It is simply about power. Have you ever considered why debates around freedom of speech always center on the rights of the dominant group to say racist and prejudicial things, statements that actually lead to structural violence to the people they purport to help – mainly Aboriginal people and other minorities? While these privileged white men claim 18c is victimising them, the consequences of their words and in Leak’s case – his cartoons – are enormous.
Responding to a separate scandal in the United States, Man Booker winning novelist Marlon James’ recent comment on ‘white artists’ and censorship applies to our own shores: “Whenever white artists want to ‘test the limits of censorship and free speech and freedom of impression’, it’s almost always over the black (or brown) body.”
We are seeing this in Leak’s portrayal of Aboriginal dads as inherently neglectful towards their children. It played on racist stereotypes that have a real effect on the high rates of child removal, that in turn leads to high rates of juvenile detention rates, and then incarceration rates, which again breaks apart families.
It is not a ‘true’ depiction of ‘Aboriginal dysfunction’ – in fact, it is the usual distortion of the facts to play into the hands of the dominant group who use these racist images to maintain power.
Leak’s proximity to power is obvious: his death was able to spark an entire day of Parliamentary debate, and an amendment to racial discrimination law simply due to his hurt feelings. He was too sensitive to hear valid criticism about how his cartoons hurt others. His hurt apparently is more important than the pain felt by thousands of Aboriginal men and women and children all over the country.
But of course, while Bill Leak’s death can lead to changes in legislation – the deaths of Aboriginal people all across the Australia is largely ignored. That is the true travesty in all this. The life of one privileged white man is seen as far superior to the lives of Aboriginal people who are victims of state sanctioned violence and institutionalised racism all across the country.
When Mr Ward was cooked to death in the back of a prison van, after being refused bail in Kalgoorlie, what did it lead to? There was compensation paid to his family after protracted battle… and no criminal charges – only charges under Workplace Health And Safety. Where was Mr Ward’s law? Where was his full day in federal parliament?
When Ms Dhu died in a South Hedland watchhouse after being locked up for non-payment of fines, did this become an election issue? Her family had to travel thousands of kilometres to drum up media support, while jailing rates of Aboriginal women, largely for non-payment of fines, continues to increase. Where was Ms Dhu’s law? When did the Prime Minister speak at her funeral?
When Mulrunji Doomadgee was killed at the hands of Snr Sgt Chris Hurley on Palm Island after being arrested for swearing, the island had to stage an uprising simply to get anyone to listen. A decade later, there are finally chances at justice… but the man responsible has never been held accountable. Where was Mulrunji’s law? Why does it take a ‘riot’ to bring attention to the worth of a black man’s life?
These are only three examples, of Aboriginal people who have lost their lives to the racist violence of the state, and yet somehow we are supposed to mourn a cartoonist who’s racism is preserved in the fallout of his death?
The whole situation is laughable, but it shows just how low the dominant group in this country will sink to go to protect their power – their ‘rights’ to do whatever they want, regardless of the impact of the most vulnerable.
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NB: You can buy the ‘Racial Discrimination Act’ tshirt from the cover image of this article via Leesa Watego on Redbubble
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