Celeste Liddle: "I know where my fight lies"

The Arrernte woman, Melbourne-based writer, speaker, and National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU pens an essay for To Her Door.

By Celeste Liddle

If I’m honest, I’m tired of talking about the Racial Discrimination Act and hearing that 18C stops “free speech”. We’ve been talking about this for years now, from the Bolt case toBill Leak, and it’s growing old.

White men are continually framing themselves as victims of “political correctness gone mad” (never mind the existence of 18D, which lays out fair conditions for exemption from 18C.) The idea that it’s more offensive, as a wealthy white conservative man, to be called a “racist” than it is to actually commit an act which vilifies others on the basis of race is repugnant.

Yet, we’re currently reading think pieces on 18C again. That’s because on the 21st of March, ironically also known as the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Turnbull government announced its plans to water down section 18Cof the Racial Discrimination Act. While reports say these plans will be blocked in the Senate, the plan to remove the words “offend, insult and humiliate” in preference for just “harass” sends a strong message to communities who are continually impacted by racism.

Put simply, the Turnbull government has shown negligible interest in eliminating racial discrimination.

The ongoing debate on 18C aside, it would have behooved Turnbull and his ilk to note the theme of this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: “Racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration”. It’s a particularly poignant theme when it comes to issues many Indigenous and other racial minority groups are currently grappling with in this country.

In 2016, there were massive protests after a Four Corners investigation into Darwin’s Don Dale juvenile Detention Centre revealed inmates being brutalised. Many of these Aboriginal children were incarcerated for petty crimes, including crimes related to homelessness that could have been better dealt with via proper social service provisions. The Royal Commission into NT Youth Detention has since unearthed further atrocities enacted upon these children including threats of sexual assault, coercion and the filming of children while they were going to the toilet.

Despite seemingly increasing community knowledge when it comes to Indigenous social justice campaigns, we also continue to see disproportionately high incarceration rates nationally. Recommendations from the tabled 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custodysaid back then that incarceration rates needed to be investigated and reduced. But incarceration rates continue to grow – and Aboriginal women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia.

At the other extreme, the horrifying rates of murder of Aboriginal women remains of little interest to most people and politicians. In 2015 and 2016, Aboriginal women made up nearly 20% of women killed as a result of “violence against women” despite being only about 3% of the female population. Yet media and police release follow-up on these cases was rare. Most of the time, there were no further updates provided regarding investigations and arrests, if these things happened at all. That Aboriginal women had to fight to get the Lynette Daley case actually to trial speaks volumes about how little our lives matter in this country. [Ms Daley was found dead on 10 Mile Beach in NSW in 2011. An autopsy later found Ms Daley died from blunt force genital tract trauma. Despite overwhelming evidence against the two men charged with her sexual assault and murder, the NSW DPP failed to prosecute until late last year].

Of course, it’s not just Aboriginal people who are racially profiled and discriminated against. It’s not a good time to be a brown or black refugee and/or of the Muslim faith right now. Earlier this month, Federal Senator Pauline Hanson infamously called for people to “pray for a “Muslim ban” in the wake of the London terrorist attack.

Prime Minister Turnbull may have denounced Hanson’s call, but this has not stopped his government—nor any of the Liberal and Labor Governments before now— from demonising asylum seekers to win votes and locking them up in detention centres that Amnesty International has described as part of “a system of deliberate abuse”.

Right now in Australia, there has never been a more urgent time to investigate how certain racial groups are profiled, how white populations are encouraged to fear and hate, and what we as a community can do about it.

Instead, our current government would prefer to make it easier for those who demonise, those who misrepresent and misreport, and those who vilify to continue doing so.

Instead of “protecting” the alleged rights of those who need the least amount of protection in our society, we need to move onto real discussions on how we can, and should, eliminate racial discrimination.

If the choice is between powerful white men being allowed to vilify others based on race — and actual social justice, which advocates for the liberties of those most vulnerable in our communities — I know where my fight lies.

Celeste Liddle blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist and lives in Melbourne. 

Illustration: Mary Delaney. Based on photo: Rick Cutrona