The real reason Abbott broke his promise on section 18C

As the conflict in Gaza escalates, the timing of a repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimation Act could not have been worse for the government. It is unlikely to be revisited anytime soon.

So the commitment to either repeal or seriously water down section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has been abandoned by the government. The announcement was made by Tony Abbott, who said he had made a “leadership” call. In other words, he did not consult Attorney-General George Brandis before he made the announcement.

It clearly represents a broken promise, especially to some of his closest supporters, including the columnist Andrew Bolt and the recently appointed Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson. They will be deeply disappointed by this decision.

While Abbott said that the decision to ditch the plan to rid the Racial Discrimination Act of section 18C was taken because of “complications” in dealing with Islamic communities in the context of the proposed tough new terrorism laws, it seems likely that more was involved in this decision.

The conflict in Gaza and the coverage and reaction to this appalling, heartbreaking conflagration, in my opinion, made it virtually certain that any move to change or abolish section 18C would extract too high a political price.

The repeal of section 18C was vigorously opposed by the leadership of virtually every ethnic community in the country. But it would be fair to say -- without wishing to give succour to those who reckon the Jews are too powerful -- that Jewish community leaders have played a crucial role in organising the opposition to any potential change to the RDA.

It is the opposition of the Jewish communal leaders that had been of major concern to Brandis and, to a significant extent, Tony Abbott. Why is that? Australian Jews after all represent just a tiny fraction of the Australian population. There are at best two seats -- one in Melbourne and one in Sydney -- in which the Jewish vote might matter, but even then there is absolutely no evidence that Jewish people vote mainly, or even significantly, on the basis of ‘Jewish issues’.

Now you may be one of those who believe that there is a secret cabal of Jews who control Australia -- its financial institutions, the media companies, the professions, the courts -- and if you are one of these people, there’s no point in talking to you. Read no further please.

The main reason that Brandis and Abbott were most concerned about the opposition of the Jewish communal leadership to any changes to section 18C is because the Jewish community is generally seen as a role model for successful multiculturalism.

Jews have made significant contributions to Australian life over a long period of time and over a wide range of areas, from business to medicine, to the law, to the arts and to philanthropy.

At the same time, the Jewish community has built institutions -- schools, cultural centres, synagogues -- that have fostered Jewish continuity and indeed are the envy of other larger communities, including the American Jewish community.

It is for these reasons that the Jewish communal leadership has played such an outsized role in the campaign against the watering down or elimination of section 18C. If the Jewish community is a prime example of successful multiculturalism, then its support for the retention of 18C, its highly effective campaign against any change to the RDA on the basis that any change would seriously undermine multiculturalism and free the racists to say whatever they please, represented serious political pain for Brandis and Abbott.

This brings us back to the horror of the war between Israel and Hamas. I do not intend here to pontificate about this terrible conflict that thankfully might be coming to some sort of temporary end. There has been enough pontification, more than enough. Indeed much more than enough.

What’s more, I am a Jew. After a lifetime in journalism when the fact of my Jewishness hardly ever mattered, this declaration is now necessary because for many people, the fact of my Jewishness is the basis on which they would judge whatever I wrote about the conflict. In a sense, I have therefore been rendered silent.

But I have been a journalist and an editor long enough to know that in some of the coverage of the Gaza conflict, by journalists who I had thought knew better, there has been commentary that is no more than self-righteous ranting at best and at worst, a descent into troubling stereotypes about Jews.

I am not in the main talking about the actual reporting of the conflict, though I do have some concerns about it. Why for instance, do reporters never declare the serious Hamas-imposed limitations they work under in Gaza?

Why do we never ever see a Hamas military commander being interviewed? Why, in the constant flow of images of death, soul-searing images, do we never see Hamas rockets being fired, some of which fall within Gaza and in some cases, have killed people? Why is there no reporting of the summary execution by Hamas of Gazans accused of being collaborators? Or the alleged shooting by Hamas gunmen of protesters calling for an end to the conflict?

But I understand that the reporters and photographers in Gaza work under extremely trying conditions and no doubt what they have witnessed has deeply affected them. I do not want to be too critical of their reporting. They do dangerous and important work. That’s not what I am primarily on about.

I have been and remain a supporter of a repeal of section 18C of the RDA on the basis that the section is too sweeping and represents too big a limitation on free speech. The section makes it an offence to insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group on the basis of their ethnicity or race.

At the very least, the idea that insult and causing offence should constitute a breach of the law needs to be addressed. These are such subjective concepts that it is impossible to imagine an objective test in law that could possibly work.

None of this however is to suggest that editors of newspapers and news websites and executive producers of radio and television programs have no right to limit what they publish or broadcast. Indeed, they have a duty to limit what they publish or broadcast. I would expect every news executive in the mainstream media to refuse to publish or broadcast work that is racist or that vilifies whole groups of people.

But here’s the thing. I believe that in recent days, in the light of what has been published about Jews and the conflict in Gaza, the clearly anti-Semitic cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald, for instance -- for which the SMH has issued a apology in an editorial that I found unsatisfactory -- not to mention the astounding amount of outright racist filth to be found on social media, it may no longer be the case that we can trust editors and executive producers when it comes to ensuring that what amounts to vilification is not given any room in mainstream commentary and analysis.

It is this that made Jewish community leaders more determined than ever to oppose any change to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. And in the main, Jews in Australia support the communal leadership on this issue.

No one can doubt that there has been an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, something that is hardly reported in most of the Australian media. Jews feel under threat -- in some cases physical threat -- in France and Belgium and Germany and even in England. Not to mention Hungary, where an openly anti-Semitic party has garnered significant support. Thousands of French Jews have left France for Israel and other places. The numbers leaving every month are growing.

Though there has not been a similar rise in virulent anti-Semitism in Australia, Jews in Australia nevertheless have good reason to believe that if the virus of anti-Semitism is spreading in Europe, it might one day reach these shores.

In this environment, Tony Abbott decided that the plan to change section 18C, a solemn promise he had made to Bolt and to his supporters at the Institute of Public Affairs had to be abandoned. Will there be a better political time to resurrect these proposed changes? Almost certainly not.

While I remain opposed to section 18C in its current form on the basis that journalists should always be in favour of fewer limitations on free speech, I shall now not lose much sleep over the fact that it will be there in the Act, unchanged, for the foreseeable future.