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Tasmania boasts best legal protection against hate, leave it so

February 19, 2020

IF you live in Tasmania, you enjoy the greatest protection in the nation from discrimination and hate speech. That protection may not mean much if you’re someone who’s not needed it.

And that’s the issue.

The most vulnerable people in our society are those marginalised because of who they are, and because of the cultural norms that have persisted for generations and allow others to assess their value against those norms.

Unchallenged, those norms give rise to segregation, isolation and erosion of the value of an individual, causing untold harm.

Twenty-one years ago, the Tasmania got the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the country, and they remain nation-leading today.

The Anti-Discrimination Act protects people from discrimination or hate speech based on race, sex, age, gender, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, political belief and, importantly, religious belief.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to introduce national legislation that would explicitly override the section of the Tasmanian Act that provides that protection.

His justification is to safeguard personal liberty. But what he is really trying to protect is the ability of the powerful to vilify and marginalise the vulnerable.

Passage of the national legislation would remove the legal protection that stands in Tasmania against hate speech.

The new law would expose many vulnerable Australians to widescale, sanctioned discrimination. It would allow healthcare providers to refuse to treat patients on religious grounds. It would allow hateful statements in everyday settings like workplaces. It would expose students, teachers and staff to discrimination in schools. It would remove legal recourse for vulnerable people subjected to hate speech because of who they are. It would be a terrible outcome for all Tasmanians, but it has more sinister implications. It’s an attack on Tasmania’s right to make and defend laws. If Mr Morrison succeeds, he will have set a dangerous precedent for the federal parliament to ride roughshod over state laws.

Let’s have a closer look at what Mr Morrison says he’s setting out to do, which is to protect people of faith from persecution because of their faith. I have no argument with ensuring people are not discriminated against on the basis of religion. I support such protection, just as I support protection for people not to be discriminated against on the basis of gender, or their ability, or sexuality, or any of attribute that can set apart one person or group from another.

But there are those who do have a problem with that level of protection, and they include our Prime Minister.

Conservative leaders in the Tasmanian community have already tried to water down the state’s nation-leading laws. In 2017 the Tasmanian government tried to amend the laws to allow religious  belief as a defence to hate speech and other actions that would be held discriminatory under Tasmanian law.

That bid was opposed by Labor and rejected by Tasmania’s Upper House. Now the same push is happening at national level.

People of faith in Tasmania have protection against discrimination or hate speech because of their religion. They enjoy the same protection as all Tasmanians, and have the same responsibility as other Tasmanians to not discriminate or incite hatred. Fears that Tasmanian law would harm faith-based organisations such as schools, hospitals and charities have proved unfounded. In fact the reverse has proved to be true: the Act has long been recognised as working well and has fostered more inclusive and successful faithbased organisations.

An exemption under the Tasmanian law means these groups can already make employment decisions on the basis of religion, while simultaneously preventing them from discriminating against people who don’t share, or align with, that religion.

Tasmania’s laws have fostered a society where hate speech is less common and debate about human rights more broadly is more mature.

This, in the state that once had the most discriminatory laws against LGBTI people. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come that we now have the best laws protecting not just LGBTI, but all people, from discrimination.

I call on the Australian Government to make a genuine commitment to protect all Australians from discrimination, not just those of faith, and abandon its intention to override Tasmanian law.

This is the time for Peter Gutwein to show backbone and compassion. He must show he can stand up to Mr Morrison where the rights of this state are at stake.

There is no need to put at risk hard-won protection for Tasmanians while trampling on state’s rights.

The smarter course would be for the Morrison Government to look to Tasmania’s laws to provide a model for the nation.

Ella Haddad is a Labor MHA.