29/08/2016 5:57 AM AEST | Updated 29/08/2016 5:58 AM AEST

The Right To Freedom And Safety Trumps The Right To Hate

Multiculturalism is one of our country’s greatest assets.

"As a country let us celebrate our differences. And, when we debate them, let's do it without resorting to vilification, and the promoting of hatred and violence."
Getty Images
"As a country let us celebrate our differences. And, when we debate them, let's do it without resorting to vilification, and the promoting of hatred and violence."

Being called a 'rat' is not new to me -- the surname just invites it. But, over the past few weeks, I've also been called a dog and a grub; I've been likened to scum, excrement and garbage, and I've been accused of supporting paedophilia. I have been accused of destroying the Australian way of life and, oddly, of having a sexual relationship with a goat. One Facebook user relished the possibility that my family would one day be murdered by terrorists.

Why the sudden torrent of abuse? Because, in a welcome moment of tripartisanship in the ACT Legislative Assembly two weeks ago, the Labor and Liberal parties supported my suggestion to introduce laws preventing religious vilification.

I know that by virtue of being born a straight, white male, I have been dealt a pretty good hand in many aspects of life. Nobody yells at me when I walk down the street, no one has ever looked at my name on a resume and second-guessed hiring me for a job, and I generally don't get ridiculed or harassed because of the way I look, what I wear or what I believe in.

As a politician, I welcome vigorous public debate -- having people engaged is what democracy is all about. And I accept that public criticism is a part of my job. What has worried me over the past few weeks, however, is that the vitriol I'm copping online for introducing legislation in the ACT to protect people from religious vilification is nothing compared to what many people of faith -- particularly Muslim Australians -- are facing every day.

My NSW Greens friend and colleague Mehreen Faruqui was the first female Muslim MP to be elected in Australia. She publishes the hate mail she receives online in a series ironically called "love letters to Mehreen" where people call her a terrorist, a "skank Moslem bitch", a "Muslime bush pig" and tell her she should be racially profiled.

It's horrific. What is even more horrifying is that this sort of abuse is so common. And there are moves right now from some powerful, bigoted individuals that are spreading ignorance, hatred and fear in our community, and I believe we must stand up against it.

At a Federal level, we are again seeing the intolerant far-right at work, calling again for the watering down Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in the name of "free speech."

With the recent election of Pauline Hanson and her colleagues in the Senate, a megaphone has been given to some of the most intolerant and ignorant voices in our community. Pauline Hanson began her career by targeting Asians and Indigenous people, now she is targeting Australia's Muslim communities. At the same time we have seen the rise of extreme, violent and frightening comments from members of our community.

One that sticks in my mind is a letter to the editor published in The Australian calling for Muslim Australians to be interned. These attitudes are not ones that I think we should, or can, accept in our society. The half a million Muslim Australians who make up our families, friends, workplaces and communities deserve so much better.

I truly believe that multiculturalism is one of our country's greatest assets. Our society is made up of people from all over the planet, their children and grandchildren. Our cultural diversity is the legacy of the broader story of human history and mass migration, with all its conflict and tragedy as well as strength and resilience. The resourcefulness and determination that migrants and refugees bring to our society has become part of our national character.

In the ACT, we have laws to protect people from vilification on the basis of race, sexuality, HIV/AIDS status, disability and gender identity. By adding "religion" as a ground of unlawful vilification laws we've joined several other Australian states, as well as other countries such as the UK, France and the Netherlands. We passed these recent reforms against religious vilification just as ethnic community leaders in NSW have joined together calling for more action to prevent hate speech, to protect communities from the promotion of violence or hatred against people based on their religion.

I proposed this law as a Greens MLA because I am concerned about people being targeted because of their race or religion with damaging hate speech. The Greens believe that everyone should be free to be who they are and choose who and what they believe in.

This is a fundamental human right.

And yes, I unapologetically believe that it trumps the rights of bigoted individuals who want to use their power and their platform to incite hatred against people because of their religion.

Contrary to what the keyboard warriors and some misinformed commentators believe, our religious vilification laws do not forbid people from criticising religion, faith or peoples' beliefs. They don't require you to be kind, polite or decent. That is entirely up to you. The laws contain exceptions for artistic works, academic debate, and other debate in the public interest. All these laws do is permit complaints to the Human Rights Commission -- with the possibility of civil remedies -- if you reach the very high threshold of "vilifying" a member of our community who has as much right as you do to live freely and safely.

We should all be free to discuss and debate religion, faith and how some followers interpret their religious scriptures. We must not accept the condoning of violence, nor persecution because of sexual orientation. As an elected Member of Parliament, I unequivocally reject bigotry and prejudice in all its forms.

As a country let us celebrate our differences. And, when we debate them, let's do it without resorting to vilification, and the promoting of hatred and violence.