Diversity Council of Australia CEO Nareen Young

Diversity Council of Australia CEO Nareen Young

THE first 100 days of the Abbott government has certainly been interesting. The merits of the government’s actions are being closely examined by their admirers and adversaries alike, and diverging public opinions about their activities are likely to continue for some time.

From a workplace diversity perspective, the paucity of women in the federal cabinet and the reintroduction of the old argument about their lack of ‘merit’ (even though this concept is slowly being discredited in workplace and business circles) sends some strong messages about respect for diversity. As does the continuing denial of the Prime Minister to allow members of his government a free vote on same sex marriage.

But no message is stronger than the stated intent of the Attorney-General to repeal section 18C of the federal Race Discrimination Act (RDA).

Why should LGBTI communities be worried about this?

To be clear, I support free speech. I support the right of everyone – in print, in art, in public demonstration and specifically, in public life – to express opinions and participate in community debate. But in public life, with this right comes responsibility.

I have worked exclusively in workplace diversity for over 15 years. I understand that workplace policies and procedures (in large, regulated workplaces) and the common law (in others) influence the environments we work in, and often determine whether or not we can flourish at our chosen workplaces. These protections have their legal basis in the various Acts of the Human Rights Commission (and in their state-based equivalents) that protect all of us from being victims of discrimination and harassment at work.

If the RDA is amended to remove section 18C that makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people because of their race, does that mean that words like ‘wog’, ‘gook’, ‘slope’, ‘kike’ or ‘coon’ become acceptable in the course of the working day or night?

What next? Will equivalent sections of the Sex Discrimination Act be repealed so that describing a co-worker as a ‘slut’, ’hag‘, ’silly cow‘ or ’bitch’ is not deemed to be offensive?

It is pretty clear where this could be heading for the LGBTI community. Hard-won recent law reforms to protect LGBTI people and their families from discrimination at work are looking increasingly precarious.

But even if it’s only the RDA that’s amended, there will still be implications for all of us in terms of what is generally acceptable in the workplace. I mean, really, if ‘Abo’, ‘coon’, ‘dago’ or ‘slope’ are ok, the inevitable question from some quarters will be why are ‘the gays’ being so sensitive?

I understand workplace banter and that industries and workplaces have cultures where it is accepted that people have different ways of expressing themselves, and everyone feels comfortable. But my experience also tells me that it only takes one new staff member, one new manager or one merger or acquisition for all of this to change. What’s light-hearted banter one minute can become racist, sexist or homophobic bullying the next.

The current system has worked effectively since 1994, when the current wording of the RDA was inserted at the behest of the Jewish community in response to some acts of racial hatred.

In my work in workplace diversity, I have never heard of anyone being upset because the current framework designed to ensure courtesy is stifling their capacity to exercise their right to free speech at work. We are not paid to be rude to people or hurt them deliberately. As employees, we are paid to work as well as we are able, and allow others to do the same.

The government’s action on this issue is a direct response to columnist Andrew Bolt being found to have breached the law by deliberately setting out to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a group of light-skinned Aboriginal people by challenging their identity in his column, in public life.

But the proposed legislative response will, if successful, have a far-reaching effect beyond the Bolt case, with implications for workplaces across the country.

This is not about political correctness gone mad.  As a highly-experienced workplace diversity practitioner, I believe it is fundamentally about decency and good manners. And about exercising the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with the right to exercise freedom of speech in the media.

So, before you get into an argument defending Bolt’s right to free speech, think about it. Think about the fabric of this society, and how you want to be treated and respected. Especially at work.

This is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of DCA or its members. Nareen tweets @nareenyoung

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