Read ECCV Opening Statement for Inquiry: Freedom of Speech in Australia - 31 January 2017

Speaking notes for ECCV Board Director Joe Caputo

Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights

Federation Room, Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne

Tuesday, 31 January at 9.00am-10.00am

Arrival time: 8.50 am (be there 10 min before)


A. Introduction

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak at this Parliamentary Joint Committee hearing on Freedom of speech in Australia on behalf of Victorians from culturally diverse communities.

My name is Joe Caputo and I represent the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria – also known as ECCV. I’m speaking in my role as an ECCV Board Director.

ECCV is a state-wide peak advocacy member-based organisation that represents ethnic and multicultural organisations and people from culturally diverse backgrounds. The ECCV has over two hundred Ethic Organisations affiliated and active in our network.

I am here with my colleague ECCV’s Executive Officer Dr Irene Bouzo. Also present to assist us is our Senior Policy Officer Carl Gopalkrishnan and Policy Officer Galina Kozoolin.

B Main Points

As you are aware ECCV has already made a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights as part of the Inquiry into Freedom of speech in Australia. It included some strategies and recommendations to manage the expectations which may have led to this inquiry.

I want to make a few key points today from our submission.

Firstly, that the ECCV believes that maintaining Section 18C of The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 as it is, is crucial to maintaining our social cohesion at this current time.

Secondly, weakening 18C could have far reaching effects including trade and investment from our region.

And, finally, that Section 18C needs to be strengthened by including ‘religion’ to reflect currently high levels of discrimination aimed at some culturally diverse communities.

C Main Points

ECCV welcomes the opportunity to provide a submission to the Government’s Inquiry into Freedom of Speech by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights; however, we are concerned by the terms of reference of this inquiry.

With almost half of Victoria’s population born overseas or with one or two parents born overseas, ECCV believes that the Act needs strengthening - not watering down.

ECCV is particularly concerned about the increase of hostility toward Muslims and other minority groups in Australia. In recent years there has been a rise in anti-multiculturalism rallies and racist attacks which promote feelings of exclusion and fear in the community.

In our written submission we included stories from our consultations with Australian Muslim mothers in the south eastern suburban area of Melbourne. They are distressed by high levels of discrimination towards them including hostile behaviours where they live, in parks and shopping centres and on roads with vehicles, including through physical attacks and verbal abuse, like hate speech.

One mother described an incident where large dogs were intentionally let loose on her children in a park by local residents. Many of these women no longer leave their homes as a result of the free speech of their neighbours and we are learning that it is a pattern occurring across Melbourne.

ECCV have examined the Human Rights Commission data and find that their community education efforts to help people understand their rights and responsibilities are appropriate to that of other agencies with a compliance role. We don’t see community education as solicitation for complaints.

The Commission’s data tell us that only a very small proportion of 18C complaints proceed through their complaints process with even a smaller proportion proceeding beyond conciliation to court.

As you know, the bar for the Court to apply 18C is much higher than it is to register a complaint, and of course it is not seen as a criminal act. When you further add in exemptions from Section 18D and the fact that we have debated this extensively in 2014 and find that the Act is doing its job well.

Given the low levels of racial discrimination cases actually proceeding to Court, ECCV believes the Commission’s ability to vet enquiries for ‘vexatious complaints’ and to refer genuine complaints to the Courts is quite strong.

Where ECCV sees room for improvement is in the Commission’s communication strategy to manage people’s expectations. We want to see the Commission play a much stronger role in community education to ensure that the community understand the limitations of free speech, and in so doing, make clear the difference between community education and compliance from encouraging vexatious complaints.

Culturally appropriate community education and interpreter services will better manage community expectations throughout the Commission’s complaints process. This could have been reviewed as part of normal business improvement and not a Parliamentary Inquiry.

Simply making translation and interpreter service information on the Commission’s website larger – it is currently in fine print at the bottom of the home page – will help to manage expectations and support genuine complaints. Despite these shortcomings, the Commission is performing well. Commission data informs us that 82% of complainants and 93% of respondents feel that they were treated fairly in the complaint’s process.

ECCV sees the Inquiry’s terms of reference potentially leading to negative impressions of Australia’s social cohesion, not only among multicultural and faith communities in Victoria, but with our regional and global trading partners, our international investors and international students. ECCV wants to see the Government strengthen 18C – not weaken it - and to recognize that Australia is a vibrant destination for qualified migrants, innovative ideas and creative talent.

This is an important juncture in Australian history and ECCV implores all parliamentarians to take full responsibility for the wording in their terms of reference and in their public comments.

Those of us that have lived in times past when it was okay to openly discriminate, abuse and intimidate other fellow members of our community just because they were different, DO NOT wish to return to the “good old days”. The question for all of us is whether we want to continue nourishing an harmonious multicultural society or whether we want a divided society based on the colour of one’s skin or the what faith one chooses to practice.

The good old days are gone, let’s make sure that they are buried and let’s move on!

D. Close

On behalf of the ECCV I thank you for the opportunity to present here today. My colleagues and I welcome your questions.


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