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.