Speaking hatred

In 2001 I researched and wrote on the Commonwealth’s racial hatred laws introduced by the Racial Hatred Act 1995. I reported and analysed tribunal findings over the first five years of operation of the laws. One of those cases involved Stephen Hagan and his battle to have a grandstand at a Toowoomba sports ground renamed. Mr Hagan claimed that the name of the grandstand was offensive to him as an Aboriginal person. The grandstand was named after E S Brown, and included Mr Brown’s ironic nickname – the ‘N-word’.

The Australian recently reported that the grandstand will be demolished but local sporting officials are determined that Mr Brown will continue to be honoured at the sports ground and that any future reference to Mr Brown will include his nickname. Concurrently with the reporting on the grandstand demolition were media reflections and celebrations on the 40th anniversary of Australia’s most emphatically endorsed Constitutional change: a change that removed the limitation on the Commonwealth making laws with respect to Aborigines and that removed the exclusion on Aboriginal people being counted in any census.

The full Federal Court previously dismissed Mr Hagan’s claim, finding that the display of the grandstand name did not breach Australia’s racial hatred laws. These are laws that have not constrained free speech as opponents feared and argued in the lead up to, and following, their introduction. However, the court’s dismissal should not dictate or support the persistence of a word that Mr Hagan and many other Australians of indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds find offensive. Using offensive language even in supposedly fair and reasonable ways only encourages and condones racist activities. The message sent by reiterating language from the past, in times when Australia’s indigenous people were systematically discriminated against, is that as a nation we are unwilling to reconcile our wrongs and that in some circumstances, even today, we will accept racist taunts. This is an unfortunate state 40 years after Australians proudly voted to endorse the country’s tolerance.

Why is it so important to Toowoomba’s sporting officialdom that a word universally considered derogatory and racist persist? Surely Mr Brown’s achievements can be celebrated and honoured without reference to his nickname just as E J Whitten’s achievements could be without referring to the Australian Rules superstar by his nickname ‘Ted’. There is a sense of ongoing triumphalism over so-called ‘activism’ and political correctness in the media reports. Indeed the references to Mr Hagan being an ‘activist’, rather than simply an indigenous person or an academic, ostracise him and diminish his argument. The references and the portrayal of Mr Hagan as an outsider can only tarnish his reputation among local indigenous groups: they have maintained that they are not offended by Mr Brown’s nickname being glorified at the Toowoomba sports ground. To them, there are certainly more important disadvantage to overcome and more important causes to challenge the local community on. The case illustrates the power of language, particularly the language of hatred, and the determination of those with power to not relinquish it. It is also a reflection of the political and power struggle over interpretations of Australian history and approaches to reconciliation. We have a long way to go.

Celebrities and scientists

I attended the recent Leverhulme lecture series presented by Professor Shiela Jasanoff for the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge.

I was very interested in the discussion about the place of the citizen and the expert in deliberative and policy processes. My own research confirms Professor Jasanoff’s thesis that scientists and governments often perceive the public as being ignorant and lacking the capacity to engage with science in environmental issues, and believe, somewhat arrogantly, that it is their role to inform and educate the masses, rather than deliberate and listen. In Australia, we are seeing this played out now with the nuclear debate. The Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources recently announced that the Australian Government will fund an advertising program to dispel the widespread public myths and fears about nuclear energy. In all likelihood the campaign, which smells a lot like electioneering, will not alter the views of Australians. This is because scientists and governments underestimate the knowledge possessed by citizens and do not appreciate the level of public distrust of government and, increasingly, experts.

Professor Simon Schaffer described society as being one that no longer (if ever) trusts, rather it demands facts and proof. He also said that society is fascinated by celebrity more than science. Anecdotally he might be right. Society seems to trust and listen to celebrities more than scientists. Bono and Chris Martin appear to be our moral leaders in relation to the minority world’s relations with the majority world. Geoffrey Rush and Barry Humphries are leading the fight to protect heritage in Australia, while the British Wind Energy Association is attempting to persuade the public of the merits of wind energy through the encouragement of celebrity ‘champions’. Certainly, there is a noticeable trend towards celebrity environmentalism that is rich for research. I’ll add it to my list.

Wind energy and birds

So who to believe? Are wind farms the avian destroyers that some wind energy opponents would have us believe or are those claims trumped up for effect?

The science and experience supports the case that the operation of most wind farms does not result in bird deaths. However, there are cases where bird strike has been evident when turbines have been built in migratory flight paths and in raptor habitats. In doing my discourse analysis for my dissertation I have analysed the web pages of the principal bird protection/ornithologist societies in Victoria and the UK to try to characterise the story these groups are telling.

RSPB … http://www.rspb.org.uk/climate/index.asp
Birds Australia (Vic) … http://www.babblersnest.com/conservation.html

What these organisations include on their web pages and what they do not is illuminating. RSPB is campaigning for climate change action, arguing that climate change will affect bird habitat and survival. Its views on wind energy are neutral. After being an initial critic of a number of proposed wind farms, RSPB appears to have softened its stance. It has even begun supporting some wind energy developments. It may well be that developers are now engaging with RSPB before they raise their proposals. Certainly that is the ‘accusation’ made by some of the fiercest wind farm opponents in the UK – the countryside protection societies.

Back in Victoria, meanwhile, where the plight of the orange-bellied parrot clouded the future of at least one wind farm development as politics were played out fiercely in Gippsland, Birds Australia is mute on climate change and wind energy. It is not afraid to campaign. Its web page shows that it has opposed two state advocated developments over the past three years – deepening of shipping channels and a ‘industrial waste containment facility’ (or ‘toxic waste dump’, depending on the discourse you adopt) – on the basis that these developments would result in habitat loss and loss of food sources.

So who is arguing for the birds? It appears that threatened birds and their supposed potential destruction is a cause that has been adopted by countryside protection groups – the chief rival of the wind energy industry. One decision-maker has confided in me that these groups use it as one of their arsenal in public fora, believing that a breadth of argument will help their case. The problem, it seems, is that they are forced into this situation because their values are not respected in these decision-making fora. The landscape is difficult to assess. It is subjective, afterall. It is therefore rarely assessed and prioritised. And rational scientists generally and erroneously conflate concerns about visual amenity with landscape.