OHPI gives evidence to Parliament on S18C and online hate

On January 31, OHPI’s CEO, Dr Andre Oboler, gave evidence at a hearing of the Joint Parliamentry Committee on Human Rights as part of their inquiry into Freedom of Speech  and S18C. Dr Oboler appeared as part of the Victorian Multicultural, Multi-Faith and Community Coalition which OHPI is proud to be apart of. A full transcript of the session is available in the Hansard of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on January 31st 2017. The following transcript is extract from the proof copy of that Hansard:

Dr Oboler: Within the Victorian Multicultural Faith and Community Coalition I run an organisation called the Online Hate Prevention Institute. I can give very recent examples. Following the attack in Bourke Street recently there has been a large amount of hate. That attack was not a terrorist attack. It was not coming from or related to any particular segment of the community, yet groups have tried to use the incident in order to cause hate and fear within the community. There were groups that tried to falsely promote it as a Muslim terrorist attack in order to incite fear, hate and violence against the Australian Muslim community. The work we did there uncovered a lot of the commentary in social media and on various websites from around the world, not just in Australia, as well as the comments that show people are hateful and are fearful. The impact at the lowest level is that people do not feel safe having their views, expressing their views or speaking on social media. So we are actually seeing that racism and discrimination is removing people’s freedom of speech. It is making some people unable to participate in the civic life of the country, even when the information is completely false. How much more so when people are deliberately choosing to attack and run campaigns against part of the community, particularly young people, if it pushes them off social media? A lot of the hate and fear is promoted online. If it pushes them off social media, it cuts off their freedom of speech, it cuts off their access to information, including social information allowing them to participate with their peers, and it breaks down what brings our community together. It breaks down people’s ability to be a part of the Australian community. I think that is one of the reasons that we need to have laws like 18C. If I can speak technically for a minute, there is a push from social media companies not to remove hate speech unless there is a basis in domestic law making it unlawful. In the case of Australia, 18C has been used for reconciliation discussions between community groups and the international social media platforms which have led to them taking decisions to remove content. This is not a position where they are being forced to do something. It is not a position where the government is censoring or regulating.

Mr PERRETT: You mean outside the commission process but with reference to Australian law? Dr Oboler: Within the commission process. There have been formal complaints where the companies have been listed as complainants and the reconciliation process, which has involved participation by the companies via telephone links from overseas, from the US, has led to resolutions. So, in that respect, our laws are firstly being effective; but also we are avoiding a situation where the government is setting up an arbitrator which is actually making take-down orders. Within the current set-up, it is still a negotiation, where the platform in this case is convinced that there is a basis for removing something and then does so of their own volition. That means the taxpayer is not picking up the cost on this and the government is not censoring. I think what we have now is actually the best situation. If we were to change the laws, we lose that, and, even if they were slightly amended, the precedent from the courts would be lost and the companies may not be as willing to see the law as a basis for them taking action until there were further court cases, and that could take decades.

CHAIR: Dr Oboler, in the interests of time, would you like to provide a more detailed written submission to the committee?

Dr Oboler: My organisation, the Online Hate Prevention Institute, has put in a written submission as well, and there is also reference to this in the coalition’s statements. I would be happy to put in further information if there are requests. We do have a report coming out this week on the Bourke Street incident, which I would be happy to share.

CHAIR: Thank you

Ms MADELEINE KING: I know, but I just wanted to make it clear. Also, I sympathise with Ms Chopra and Professor Camilleri in relation to the existence of this inquiry. Many of us in the parliament, and personally myself, are at a loss to understand why the government called on this inquiry, which is specifically in relation to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and not really into freedom of speech more generally. I hope you understand that, as parliamentarians from all sides of all the fences in the parliament, we do have to participate in this to make sure it is a well-run process. That is more a statement. Some people and groups that have made submissions to this inquiry have suggested what they would like to see in the Racial Discrimination Act in a perfect world. I have not read submissions which say what groups like yourselves would like in a perfect world, other than I think this morning someone mentioned adding religion to strengthen the act. We obviously cannot hear from everyone, but in a perfect world what would you like to see in the Racial Discrimination Act to better prevent racism against groups in this community?

Dr Oboler: To answer that question, there are two issues. The first is that any change to the act, even changes that could improve it, carry a risk at this point in time. Any change would create an impression that there is some feedback from the parliament that the sort of hate we are seeing and the sorts of comments that have been saying that this law should be removed, which have been tied largely to those promoting that hate, have traction, and I think that is actually quite dangerous. While there may be ways of improving it—and certainly the coalition has the view that religion should be covered, whether it is in that act or in another act—at this point in time, changes would be problematic. Another issue is that people who are not part of minority communities are not really affected by this. I do not think that is actually true. I think we have already heard evidence from the panel on that. Anyone who is standing up for others who are racially vilified puts themselves in the line of fire. I am a member of the Jewish community. I have been attacked with Islamophobia because of the work we do dealing with hate against the Muslim community. I have been attacked because of the work we do dealing with the Indigenous community. Anybody, regardless of their ethnicity, who engages in supporting people is at risk, and at the moment those people, unless they are mistakenly attacked for being a member of a community they do not belong to, are not really covered. Some sort of protection would be useful somewhere in the legislation. If I may, I would like to comment on Senator Paterson’s comments before as well. You mentioned the editor of the Jewish News. On any issue, there are people across the Australian community that have a wide range of views. I do not think it is genuine to take individual views when they conflict with the stated position of the representative bodies of the community. I am on the executive of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. We are part of the coalition and we are very clear that we oppose this. I am also a councillor for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who I believe is also speaking to the inquiry. The ECAJ’s position is also very clear. The Jewish community’s position is that these laws have been very helpful for dealing with anti-Semitism and they should not be changed. There will be individuals in the community who have other views, but that goes for any issue in any part of the Australian community. The number of submissions—and I have been looking through them and counting them—that are in favour of change is minutely small. The coalition here has over 100 organisations, each of which represents a large segment of the community or is an umbrella body that represents many more organisations. So the number is beyond 100 and that says that the bulk of opinion is really for leaving this as is.

Senator PATERSON: Just briefly on that, since you raised it, Dr Oboler, we are hearing from a witness later in the week, Dr David Adler, who has put in a submission to the inquiry which received support from the Rabbinical Council of New South Wales, which has three prominent rabbis who have signed on in support of it. Dr Adler’s contention is that he does not believe that Jewish community leadership organisations are representative of the broad range of opinion within the Jewish community. I think that is one example that there is very robust debate in the community.

Dr Oboler: I think we have to take as given that where we have hundreds of organisations that pay money and explicitly affiliate to peak community bodies, those bodies have some standing. They are recognised by the parliament as having standing to speak for those communities. They are recognised at law. Individuals within the community can make all sorts of statements. The fact that someone is ordained as a religious leader does not automatically give them scope for speaking on political matters on behalf of a community. David Marlow was telling me to also say that the Victorian Rabbinical Council has endorsed the coalition’s position. So there are people with different views but, again, there is a difference between individual views and the official views coming from representative bodies.

Senator PATERSON: I realise we are taking up other’s time here so I apologise, but since we are having this exchange, what steps did you take to ascertain the views of your community in preparing this submission? Did you run a poll? Was there an open submission process? How did you determine this? Dr Oboler: There are two levels to this. The first level is at the level of the coalition. So the coalition has written to the different organisations who have signed up. In the vast majority of cases, what has then happened is the coalition’s position was taken to the boards of the different organisations. The position as it was being drafted did change a number of times. Each time it was taken back to those organisations. So it has had sign off, if you like, from the executives who are appointed to represent those organisations. The second level is that there has then also been public discussion. There is another debate on this topic within the Jewish community coming up, but there has been a lot of consultation and a lot of discussion. The Jewish Community Council of Victoria had discussions on these issues in plenary sessions. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry discussed this at its AGM. Senator

PATERSON: Just to clarify though, there has been no poll? You do not have any measure of the community’s view on this?

Dr Oboler: There has been public opinion polling done showing about 90 per cent of the public are against any changes. They are either very happy or happy with things as they are.

Senator PATERSON: You must have missed the front page of The Australian today—

Senator McKIM: Push polling.

Senator PATERSON: That is very unkind thing to say about Galaxy Research.

Mr LEESER: On the question about extending 18C to cover religion, and I understand why that has been put by at least three of the four bodies here, particularly to deal with Islamophobia, but is there any evidence that the commission has rejected complaints brought by the Muslim communities or terminated complaints from the conciliation process at any time in its history? Is there any evidence of that?

Dr Oboler: The Online Hate Prevention Institute did put together a report in 2013 specifically on online antiMuslim hate and we wrote to the commission asking if we could have feedback and a statement of support. We were explicitly told that because the commission’s work does not cover religious vilification they could not comment on it. That is not a complaint; that was a request for feedback, but they did make reference to their mandate. It was a few years ago. They may have changed their view, but there was at least at one point in time the view that religion was outside what they could deal with.

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