Why Section 18C is Hindering Indigenous Advancement

Well, unfortunately, the parliamentary review into section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has delivered its findings, but instead of showing leadership has fizzled into a hotchpotch of uncontroversial recommendations leading us to believe that our nation’s politicians are again reluctant to show leadership if there is any likelihood that they might offend minority interests.

No doubt some of the recommendations regarding the procedural processes of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) might be helpful, but they baulked at the opportunity to question whether the HRC adds sufficient value to warrant its continued existence.

Moreover they baulked at the prospect of abolishing section 18C altogether. Many of us thought that the Act’s provision to prevent people from saying or writing things that might be deemed to “insult, offend or humiliate” others was far too subjective because it relied on the supposed perception of the individual rather than relate to any community standard.

As I have often written, the chief strategy of those who don’t wish to have their viewpoints challenged is to confect offense, which under this oppressive law, shields them from scrutiny.

Again, as I have frequently stated, the good Dr Phil has taught me that offense is never given it is only taken. Dealing with offense therefore, should largely be the responsibility of the offended person, rather than those accused of offending.(Yes, I know – that will get me into trouble for “blaming the victim”. If the truth be told I am not advocating that we should blame anyone. I am just advocating that we should do useful things rather than be inveigled into gesture politics that help no one.)

Presumably the Racial Discrimination Act was framed to safeguard the welfare of minority groups with different racial backgrounds to the majority of Australians. No doubt its authors had indigenous people front of mind when it was enacted. So let’s take a little time to reflect on whether this part of the Act actually benefits such people, and in particular indigenous Australians.

I am fortunate enough to have access to a network of people who either have an indigenous background of some form or who work closely with people who do. The majority feeling from that group is that Section 18C is not generally helpful to indigenous people. Let’s try and understand why that might be the case.

Three of the major impediments to indigenous advancement are:

  • A failure of indigenous people to take responsibility for their own welfare. (This is aided by the “Aboriginal Industry” that largely exists because of the indigenous dependence on others and the propensity to seek victim status.)
  • An excessive glorification of traditional culture and a tendency to use culture to explain away anti-social behaviours of indigenous people.
  • In advancing their victimhood status, an over-reliance of indigenous people to resort to historical factors to explain their social dysfunction.


[With respect to the Aboriginal Industry one of my indigenous correspondents wrote tellingly, “The Industry requires Victims.  Without Victims, it can’t justify its existence.  Probably without realising what they are doing, the leaders of the Aboriginal Industry ensure that there are always Victims.  One way of achieving this outcome is by pushing for Separate Development in remote areas.”]

Now, whether you agree or not with my hypothesis, surely these are things worthy of discussion. If we are to make any headway in improving the lot of our indigenous fellows, we need to determine those factors impeding their advancement. Many of those I correspond with, including those with some indigenous heritage would agree with my statements above.

Yet, in trying to determine an effective strategy for indigenous advancement, I could well be accused of “offending” indigenous people by making such statements and consequently be hauled before the Human Rights Commission for daring to suggest such things. And in this way the real debates we need to have are avoided.

My friend, the researcher, Anthony Dillon, who identifies as part indigenous, warned me some time ago that whilst he could get away with challenging the conventional wisdom with respect to indigenous disadvantage, I should be careful how I tread. I am compelled to ask, “Is this a healthy thing?”

There are a couple of issues here.

As one of the indigenous correspondents pointed out, surely the issue should be not whether someone has claimed to have been offended, which is a very subjective criteria, but whether the so-called perpetrator had actually intended to cause offense.

We seem to use different criteria when dealing with such issues than we otherwise might. If a little old lady is walking down the footpath behind you and trips and in the act of falling accidently shoves you in the back, your immediate reaction may well be one of defence. But when you turn around and see what has actually transpired very few of us would take umbrage. Therefore it is not the act in itself but our interpretation of the intent of the perpetrator that we take affront to. But in the case of section 18C the intent of the perpetrator is irrelevant. Those who choose (and I use this word quite deliberately) to take offence need not be bothered by the intent of the offending party. In this regard the legislation is stacked heavily in favour of the self-anointed victims.

Again I would like to quote Anthony Dillon who wisely says,

“If I choose to take offence – and it is always a choice – I would be essentially saying to my critics, ‘Your opinion of me has more power over me than I have over myself.’”

In a similar vein my correspondents complain that the legislation infantilises indigenous people. It seeks to cocoon them in paternalistic protectionism which makes it easier for them to avoid confronting the real issues contributing to their disadvantage. It encourages them to take a passive role, ostrich-like, sticking their heads in the sand and calling on the Government to solve their problems for them.

So, in essence, section 18C presents indigenous people with a shield that can be used to prevent them being confronted with ideas and information that run counter to the prevalent victim status assumed by many of them.

It is essential, if we are to advance indigenous welfare, to challenge some of the conventional wisdom, even though 18C allows an easy out, enabling some indigenous people to shut their ears by claiming offense.

I could use other examples to press my case here but perhaps the most invidious issue in this regard is indigenous culture. So let me concentrate on that.

I suspect that the reason indigenous culture is promoted so highly is because many feel that it is an avenue to increase the self-esteem of indigenous people. You often hear the claim that the culture of indigenous Australians is particularly unique because it the oldest culture still practiced.

But we need to be circumspect about indigenous culture. To begin with, because prior to European settlement, the indigenous population was dispersed among a multitude of tribes most with their own unique language, it is impossible to identify cultural mores that applied generally across the indigenous population.

Secondly we should stop and examine the role of these indigenous cultures and what might recommend them to us. It must be conceded that these cultural traits successfully nurtured indigenous people for millennia. They helped to preserve native peoples living in a harsh environment in what was basically a stone-age society. It doesn’t take much thought to conclude that such cultures are unlikely to advance the welfare of indigenous people in the Australia of today.

Jeremy Sammut, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, points out that for indigenous people, the “worst social outcomes and disadvantage are among the 20 per cent of indigenous Australians who live in rural and remote homelands with the worst social dysfunction.”

Now essentially, these communities were set up to preserve traditional culture and identity. As a policy, this has been an unmitigated disaster. Sammut continues;

By contrast the 80 per cent of indigenous Australians who live mainly in urban areas achieve social outcomes that are the same as their non-indigenous peers. Moreover, their indigenous identity is unquestioned, despite having lost contact with traditional lands and culture.

Anthropologist Peter Sutton argues that the persistence of traditional cultural practices in remote communities, such as “hunter and gatherer style hygiene and sanitation habits and permissively neglectful attitudes to parenting children are significant contributors to poor health, reduced child welfare and other dysfunctional social outcomes.”

It becomes evident that it is more than appropriate to examine indigenous cultures with respect to how they might impede efforts to overcome indigenous disadvantage.

In a recent article in Quadrant, researcher and writer from the University of New South Wales, Kerryn Pholi wrote:

If organisations devoted to ending violence against women truly care about Aboriginal women, they must be willing to identify and criticise the Aboriginal cultural attitudes and beliefs that condone violence against women, and they must do so to the same extent that they criticise such attitudes in the mainstream. In doing so they would have to acknowledge that some elements of traditional Aboriginal culture are not worth preserving.

There is, therefore, considerable evidence to suggest that the maintenance of traditional cultural practices has been less than helpful in promoting the welfare of indigenous people, particularly women and children.

I have just concentrated on one of the factors impeding indigenous advancement. Surely it is obvious that we must have these “hard” conversations if we are to find effective ways forward. It is no help to indigenous advancement when the conversation can be easily terminated by someone claiming offense because their much heralded culture is being impugned. Or they can easily avoid confronting the other important issues by confecting offense.

In this way, I would submit, whatever its intentions, Section 18C isn’t helpful to the advancement of indigenous welfare.

If we are indeed to advance the welfare of indigenous peoples, it is time to look beyond the gesture politics of treaties, recognition referenda, racial discrimination acts and so on. Most of the evidence would suggest that the two principal factors that enhance indigenous welfare are education and employment. Unfortunately those inhabiting remote communities have access to neither.

As Jeremy Sammut has written,

(Acknowledging the problematic issues of culture)…the implications for indigenous policy are confronting – namely that if we want indigenous people to continue to live remotely in order to live close to culture, maybe we need to accept that the consequence will be gaps in social outcomes.

6 Replies to “Why Section 18C is Hindering Indigenous Advancement”

  1. The term “aboriginal industry” is interesting. I have often wondered about the purpose of this industry. Does the special stataus of (aboringinal) people exist because they were persecuted 200 plus years ago and seek recognition of victimhood and therefore special treatment as recompense, or does it exist because there is a culture worth holding onto because it benefits the (aboriginal) generations to come? There must be other points because I’m not convinced by either !

  2. It seems to me the people that are ‘abusing’ 18C (I accept that is my description) are referring predominately to 20 per cent of indigenous Australians who live in rural and remote homelands with the worst social dysfunction and not the 80 per cent who live mainly in urban areas and achieve social outcomes that are the same as their non-indigenous peers.

    I agree with Jeremy Sammut that if we want (or if indigenous people want ) indigenous people to continue to live remotely in order to live close to culture, maybe we need to accept that the consequence will be gaps in social outcomes.

    In my view consequences come with any choice. Everyone needs to understand that.

  3. Interesting that you talk about an Aboriginal industry Ted, and how the creation of such an industry can in itself have unanticipated consequences. I recently watched a documentary on the history of drugs and drug enforcement in the US and I notice a parallel. The banning of alcohol in the US from 1920 to 1933 required the establishment of a large dedicated prohibition law enforcement department. At the end of prohibition however there was a massive infrastructure with nothing to do. It is no coincidence that in 1937 the uniform criminalisation of cannabis occurred with the Marijuana Tax Act. It seems that a large part of community feeling and beliefs towards marijuana has been created by this prohibition industry come narcotics industry. Arguably many of these beliefs are incorrect. The industry needed strong support so they drummed it up. My point here is that when a large government infrastructure is set up it will create a need for itself and if the original need is removed a new need will evolve. From the perspective of indigenous people the infrastructure created to solve the problem is likely to ensure the problem is never truly fixed unless there is something new for them to move on to. Not sure what that might be but something will need to be found.

  4. Hi Ted

    You have now cited another good example regardless of the issue of where our democratic system of government is “constipated” and unable to implement significant change or reform as we progress into a new society.


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