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Tim Soutphommasane’s ‘grievance industry’ sees bigots everywhere

It may seem unfair to the 24 million Australians who have yet to master the pronunciation of the six tones of Lao, but as Thinethavone Soutphommasane often tells us, we should always call out racism when we see it.

“If someone says to me they’re not even going to try to pronounce my name, that doesn’t necessarily send a good signal,” the race relations commissioner told The Australian Financial Review in a revealing interview this month.

“It says that they’re not even bothered to treat me with respect. How would they feel if they were told that every day — that people weren’t going to even try to pronounce their name?”

Just when you think the threshold for taking offence could not get lower, the salaried hand-wringers of the grievance industry prove you wrong. Every slight, real or imagined, is tendered as evidence of the bigotry eating away at our society.

It is in the nature of the racism-calling business to imagine the worst in everybody. Like a prosecutor in a Kafka novel, the commissioner is deemed to possess extraordinary powers to examine the souls of others and expose the thought crimes within. To declare oneself innocent or suggest there’s been a mistake is futile for, as Josef K was told in no uncertain terms, “that is how the guilty speak”.

There are many reasons parliament should abolish clause 18C of the Race Discrimination Act, but the most compelling is that the Australian Human Rights Commission has its mitts on it.

The commission’s failure to kill off the sinister Queensland University of Technology case, in which students have been put through the mill for daring to object to being ejected from an indigenous-only computer room, shows that commissioner Gillian Triggs and her team have no regard for natural justice, let alone a sense of proportion.

The chance that a complaint will be dismissed as wobbly is getting smaller every year. Of the 979 complaints finalised by the commission between 2001 and 2005 almost three in 10 were declared trivial, vexatious, frivolous, misconceived or lacking in substance.

In the same period 10 years later, under presidents Catherine Branson and Triggs, the proportion dismissed as insubstantial was less than one in 20.

The commissioners’ inclination to take the grimmest view imaginable of their fellow citizens — those, at any rate, with white skin — is at best uncharitable. At worst it suggests they are subject to the same hidebound prejudice they so freely identify in others. Why else would Soutphommasane believe the election of Pauline Hanson could trigger civil unrest? What else but prejudice would lead him to regard One Nation’s white, non-university-educated voters with such condescension? A few choice words from the red-haired demagogue, apparently, and they’ll be rioting in the streets. “We have plenty of examples about how licensing hate can lead to serious violence and ugliness in our streets and our communities,” Soutphommasane declared. “There’s great potential for harm to be done when you’re talking about inflammatory rhetoric or appeals to xenophobia.”

His attempt to censor an elected politician seems impertinent, but in the racism-calling caper that’s the way they think. Branson, in her farewell speech in 2012, said building a human rights culture was “much too important to leave just to governments”.

To be condemned as a racist is one of the worst slurs one can cast on a fellow citizen, particularly when amplified by the pack-hunting boors on social media. Yet there is no presumption of innocence when one is hauled before the commission, despite the seriousness of the charges, nor any sense that the commissioners wish to be seen as impartial.

It is all in a day’s work for Soutphommasane, who warns: “If you don’t want to be called a racist or a bigot, you can start by not expressing a racist or bigoted opinion.”

In any other context he would be appalled at the kind of extrajudicial vilification he now practices. Indeed, in his former career as a humble columnist for this newspaper, he criticised the “trial by media” of former Hey Dad! star Robert Hughes. Allegations of sexual molestation, published at length by Woman’s Day, had “all but guaranteed Hughes won’t receive a fair trial”.

“Justice is dispensed in the courtroom, not before some cameras in some TV studio, and certainly not in the pages of some trashy magazine,” he wrote.

Six years later the niceties of natural justice appear to trouble Soutphommasane somewhat less.

He has no compunction towards prejudging his fellow citizens on whatever platform he is offered.

When asked to comment by Fairfax about the latest controversy — the one about a feckless Aboriginal father in a Bill Leak cartoon — Soutphommasane happily goes in for the kill.

“Our society shouldn’t endorse racial stereotyping of Aboriginal Australians or any other racial or ethnic group,” he said.

“A significant number” of people would agree the cartoon was a racial stereotype and he urged anyone who was offended by it to lodge a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act.

Thus the fears of those who opposed Gough Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act legislation in 1975 have been fulfilled.

Far from eliminating social tension, the Racial Discrimination Act’s draconian measures have increased it.

We have ended up, as former senator Glen Sheil warned, with an official race relations industry staffed by “dedicated anti-racists earning their living by making the most of every complaint”.

Hughes, for the record, is serving a non-parole period of six years for paedophilia.

His complaint that media coverage had prejudiced his trial was dismissed by the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal last September.

Meanwhile a fine cartoonist has had an unjustified slur cast over his name by a 33-year-old with a philosophy degree who is paid more than $6000 a week from the public purse.

Soutphommasane should apologise.

Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre.

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