Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria chairman Eddie Micallef says his organisation fully supports the principles and importance of freedom of speech.
He says the organisation sees it as an essential element in any truly democratic society.
But Mr Micallef says the Federal Government’s proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act do nothing to promote free speech and will only increase hate speech.
He is urging ethnic and multicultural communities to come together in a campaign to oppose the proposed changes to the act.
“Well, there’s a large number of organisations that have already approached us and asked us what we’re doing in relation to the proposed changes to 18C. We’ve been getting a very strong response for us to take up the actions on their behalf. We’re saying to the ethnic communities themselves that you also have to make your own voice heard, even though we are the peak organisation.”
The call from the council comes after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced moves earlier this week to change Australia’s race hate laws.
In the next fortnight, the Government plans to introduce a bill to change the wording of section 18C, saying “insult” and “offend” are too subjective and the word “harass” is a more legal term.
The Prime Minister has insisted replacing the other terms with “harass” would make the law more effective and less restrictive.
“What we presented today strikes the right balance, defending freedom of speech, so that cartoonists will not be hauled up and accused of racism, so that university students won’t be dragged through the courts and pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal costs imposed on them over spurious claims of racism. The time has come to get the balance right, to get the language right, to defend our freedom of speech and defend Australians with effective laws, clear laws, against racial vilification.”
Labor, the Greens and a number of Senate crossbenchers say they will block the legislation.
And a Greek community group has added its voice to what the Victorian council is saying.
The Greek Community of Melbourne organisation says the proposed changes are “legally unsound” and “morally wrong.”
The group’s Jorge Menidis says it does not believe the general public wants section 18C changed.
“It’s not something that is being discussed by the general population in this country. It is something that is being insisted on by some right-wing commentators and parliamentarians. And, quite frankly, it’s something that we’re all at a loss at. But, absolutely, we will be talking to all public officials about this. We feel it’s an extremely important position that we take and – not only, as I said, us – we noticed most other communities of our wonderful multicultural Australia take.”
The Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria says it does not believe changes are needed because the provisions of section 18D of the act cover the right to freedom of speech.
“The Prime Minister gave strong indications before the election that he would not change 18C, and then to release your Multicultural Act and propose changes, you’re sending out mixed messages to the multicultural communities. Are you supportive of them, or are you reacting to some of the more conservative elements within your political process, and some of the more extremist groups? I think this just gives encouragement to those extreme groups that feel that they ought to have the right to make whatever statements they want to under the guise of free speech, and I think that’s very concerning.”