(Transcript from World News Radio)
Under the changes, the words insult, offend and humiliate would be removed from section 18C of the Act, but the word intimidate would remain.
Attorney General George Brandis says the changes will strengthen the Act’s protections against racism and remove unnecessary limits on freedom of speech.
Amanda Cavill reports.
(Click on audio tab to listen to this item)
During the 2013 election campaign, the Coalition promised to introduce to parliament a bill to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
While the repeal would not affect state laws against racial vilification, the Coalition wants the Act rewritten so that it does not impede freedom of speech.
It follows the case of newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt, who lost an action in the courts in 2011 defending a column he wrote claiming that some Aboriginal people sought professional advantage through the colour of their skin.
Attorney General Senator George Brandis says it is one of the misconceptions in the repeal debate that the Racial Discrimination Act prohibits racial vilification but it in fact does not.
“A properly worded section can achieve both objectives of protecting legitimate freedom of speech and freedom of public discussion about matters of race, while at the same time containing protections against racial vilification and other unacceptable racist conduct. This proposed amendment does both. These are the strongest protections against racism that have ever appeared in any Commonwealth Act.”
Senator Brandis is also proposed repealing section 18D of the Act, which provides exemptions that protect freedom of speech.
These exempt artistic works, scientific debate and fair comment on matters of public interest, providing they are said or done reasonably and in good faith.
Under the changes, a new section would be inserted into the Act to preserve the existing protection against intimidation and create a new protection from racial vilification.
Senator Brandis says the proposed changes will be discussed with the community in the next month but he’s declined to say what the government will do if the changes are rejected.
“We will hear what the community has to say and I don’t for a moment expect that everybody in the community will say this is exactly right. I have consulted the community in a one on one basis over a period of months. We are now consulting the community in aggregate. We will take this back to the party room. The Government did promise to reform section 18C in its current form and we are a Government which keeps our promises.”
Section 18C became law in 1995 in response to recommendations from major inquiries, including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Its accompanying section, 18D, is seen by some as a protection for free speech in that it allows comments or actions made in good faith and fair comment if it is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.
Opposition Legal Affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus says the government is giving the go-ahead to people to use racist hate speech.
He says Labor is deeply concerned by the scope of the changes the government is planning to Section 18C.
“The requirement that previously appeared in the protection of free speech in Section 18D of reasonableness and good faith is entirely removed and I can tell all present and anyone listening that one could drive a truck through that provision. It is a provision of such breadth that just about anything that might be able to be said in the course of a public discussion of some political or social or cultural matter would come within this exception to the prohibition, meaning that what we’re left with is something of very little meaning.”
The proposed changes come after many ethnic and religious groups made it clear to the government they are opposed to the weakening of current protections.
The government is also facing opposition from within its own party rooms.
Some MPs have urged Senator Brandis to keep the legal safety net protecting racial minorities against hate speech.
Indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt has threatened to cross the floor to oppose the change.
Opposition spokesman for citizenship and multicultural Affairs Michelle Rowland says the issue is shaping up to be a test of Tony Abbott’s commitment to Indigenous Australia and other minority groups.
“I think that that is one voice that should certainly be listened to by the Prime Minister. I think he should also be listening to a number of community groups and I’ll just mention a few: from the Jewish community, many from different ethnic groups; and I think it is a test of whether or not this government takes seriously its commitment to multiculturalism and having an inclusive, harmonious society.”