Victoria Legal Aid

'When is it going to stop, if it's left unchallenged?' Our evidence to change hate speech laws

We helped Charmaine Clarke, a client of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service to give evidence to the Victorian Parliament's Inquiry into Anti-vilification Protections, often known as 'hate-speech' laws.

Friday 29 May 2020 12:00am

We helped Charmaine Clarke, a client of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), to give evicence to the Victorian Parliament's Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections, often known as 'hate-speech' laws.

In March we made a joint submission with VALS that reccomended changes to Victorian laws, to bolster protections from hate speech. Based on our practice experince we argued laws around serious incitment or hatred needed to be simplified, to remove technical barriers which stop victims proving that hate speech occurred. We also reccomended new protections to address hate speech that offends, humiliates, insults or intimidates people because of who they are – including women, people with disability and LGBTIQ+ people. Yesterday we gave evidence to the committee. Read Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and Victoria Legal Aid opening statements – Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections.

Charmaine Clarke's evidence – experience of racism as an Indigenous person

My name is Charmaine Clarke, I am a 53-year-old Gunditjmara woman, a member of the stolen generation and I live in Warrnambool on my father’s country. As an Indigenous person, the experience of racism in Australia is effectively a life-long burden. Australians would like to think it is an egalitarian society, but the reality is, racism is so deeply woven into its social fabric. A research report from VicHealth published in 2007 that interviewed 775 Indigenous Victorians about experiences of racism found that 97 per cent had experienced racism in the last 12 months. The various experiences of racism were:

  • name calling or racist remarks
  • ignored in service
  • spat at or had an object thrown at them, or were hit or threatened to be hit because of their race
  • told they did not belong here, or had their property vandalised because of their race.

Some of these accounts reflect my own personal experiences where I was spat on, almost ran over by a car, refused service on numerous occasions and being exposed to predatory behaviour and sexual assault due to my gender and race. Systemic racism and our relentless exposure to it has lifelong mental health impacts.

Anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, chronic ptsd and self-harm or suicide are among the known mental health outcomes associated with exposure to systemic racism. Racism and its Historical practises do fuel contemporary attitudes.

Like many Indigenous Australians I live in rural Victoria where the history of unresolved race relations still bubble under the surface. Many long term residents including farming families share a history and legacy of these racialised practises and attitudes. In my town, curfews for Indigenous people were in place up until the 1940’s. 'Blacks', as we are at times referred to by locals, were to be out of town and out of sight. Many of my elders remember well, being chased by police, or yelled at by locals to 'get back to the mission'. There is a palpable wound that festers in these places and it’s the generations who are raised here that inherit its attitudes and scars.

Australia is a country with a long history of indifference towards Indigenous Australians. Indeed it is almost 'un Australian' for a person to not be racist towards us or at least held some racist views about us in the course of their lifetime.

My racial incident

In December last year, as I was having lunch at my favourite bistro, I heard a young man at another table near me making a litany of racist remarks about Indigenous people. It was partially fuelled by the closing of Uluru to climbing. He was a teenager and was in the company of his adult brother, Mother and two other Adults and their son. It wasn’t hard to hear him as most of the service had finished and I and another lone individual were the only other diners in the lounge area. In my community I am considered an Elder and I actively advocate for reconciliation in my town, giving talks, welcoming ceremonies and participate on a number of committees as an Indigenous voice.

I therefore felt compelled to approach the table and politely educate the young man and his company on the misconceptions he was saying about Indigenous people. I simply conveyed the connection to country that we felt, how we lived here for thousands of years in Nations and that some places are sacred to us like Churches or memorials. I felt that I had dutifully shared my knowledge in a respectful manner, but as I was leaving their table his mother told him ‘don’t listen to those people’. The young man then became aggressive towards me, calling me an ‘Abo’, a ‘stupid Abo’ and told the others that he ‘wished the Abo would just shut up’.

The group reacted in various ways, including smirks and scoffing, or some sat in silence.

I was alone. They were four adults and two teenagers.

I felt fear, humiliation, I was shaking, embarrassed and deeply shamed.

A proud proactive and University educated Gunditjmara woman, reduced to just being ‘a stupid Abo’.

My decision to pursue a case of Racial Vilification was not an easy choice. I live in a country town whose population is predominately Non-Indigenous. I am a minority. But I thought of all the other Indigenous people who have suffered from racism, like my parents, sisters, brothers, Uncles, Aunties cousin, nieces, and nephews.

When is it going to stop, if its left unchallenged? Especially in places like my town.

The local Aboriginal Liaison officer recommended I speak with a Senior Sargent who had close ties with the Indigenous community. Like me, he had never undertaken an application under the act before and I provided him with my statement of the incident and CCTV footage from the Bistro. I made a formal complaint to the management of the Bistro and was satisfied with their prompt and sincere response. They apologized and worked collaboratively with both myself and Victoria Police in gathering information around the incident.

When I discussed legal representation with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, I learnt that very few cases have met the standards set out under this act. From my understanding, the act currently requires the victim to prove that the racial vilification incited another person to engage in conduct that incites hatred, serious contempt for or revulsion or severe ridicule of that other person or class of persons. The word incite has more weight than the act of racial vilification. This was a shock to me and a great disappointment and immense source of frustration. What’s the point of a piece of legislation that isn’t interested in either you (the victim) or the offender, but focuses only on the behaviour of bystanders. Why call it racial vilification when it’s so lightly weighted. I put myself through the effort to pursue justice, to call racism to account publicly in my small town, but like many other cases, it was to no avail. I was told by the Police in March 2020, that I did not meet the threshold in their opinion.

I was gutted, disappointed, angry and felt betrayed. I have experienced racism all of my life. From primary school with the chants of Abos Abos following me in recess, lunch and play, all the way through to my adulthood. It occurs everywhere at any time.

I now walk the streets of my home town even more wary and vigilant because the people who choose to practice racism are walking those streets too and when I tried to something about it, they got away with it again.

I hope the committee here understands the prevalence of racial vilification against Indigenous Victorians. It is insidious, utterly damaging and life changing. If we are to commit to laws that facilitate change and reflect our values and conduct in a society then they need to be accessible to those like me who seek its protection. Unfortunately like many others, I tried and failed.

More information

Read our statements to the committee.Read Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and Victoria Legal Aid opening statements – Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections.

Read joint submission to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into anti-vilification laws, 'Fair and accessible anti-vilification protections for all Victorians'.

Reviewed 14 April 2022