The Abbott government has backed down on controversial plans to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was a ‘‘leadership call’’ to bin the proposed changes to Section 18C of the act, which had been roundly criticised by ethnic community leaders and was unpopular with the wider public.
“Leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this position,” Mr Abbott said.
Mr Abbott said it was a “complication” in the current environment and “we’re just not going to proceed with it”.
‘‘I’m a passionate supporter of free speech and if we were starting from scratch with section 18C we wouldn’t have words such as offend and insult in the legislation. But we aren’t starting from scratch. We are dealing with the situation we find ourselves in and I want the communities of the country to be our friend not our critic,” he said.
“I want to work with the communities of our country as team Australia here.”
The announcement was made under the cover of Mr Abbott’s Tuesday press conference on terror laws with Attorney-General George Brandis.
Senator Brandis had led the government’s bid to wind back 18C, famously proclaiming that people had the ‘‘right to be a bigot’’.
Before last year’s election, the Coalition had promised to repeal section 18C, which became known as the “Bolt laws” after News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt was prosecuted under the existing legislation for two comment piece on white-skinned Aboriginals.
Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to: “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” because of their race or ethnicity”.
The Attorney-General’s draft bill proposed a new section that would make it: “unlawful for a person to do an act . . . that is reasonably likely to vilify another person or a group of persons or intimidate another person or group of persons”.
The proposed law would have removed protections against offending, insulting or humiliating someone.
But the public storm led to months of delays and reports of angst at cabinet level over the changes.
Last week, Fairfax Media revealed the Coalition’s plan to water down race hate laws had been rejected by a large majority of respondents to a government review.
More than 76 per cent of 4100 submissions opposed the proposal. Just 20.5 per cent of submissions were in favour of the changes, according to documents obtained under freedom of information laws by Simon Rice of the Australian National University. Three per cent called for a complete repeal of all racial discrimination protections.
Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson tweeted after the announcement: ‘‘Disturbed to hear the government has backed down on 18C and will keep offensive speech illegal. Very disturbed.’’ Mr Wilson, an Abbott appointee and former analyst with the Institute of Public Affairs has been vocal in his support for changes to the racial discrimination laws, saying they prevent equality.
Mr Wilson told Fairfax Media the move to back down on reforming section 18C is “very disappointing.”
“A law that was controversial when it was introduced, controversial in its operation, a controversial act today,” he said.
“The racial discrimination act significantly restricts free speech in a way that all other anti-discrimination laws do not and the government seems to foolishly think that backing down will assist them or be in the best interest of the Australian population.”
Mr Wilson said there should not be a situation where select legal privileges are enjoyed by some and not by other people.
“The Prime Minister said that he wants to unite team Australia. I agree, which is why we should have laws that apply for everybody consistently,” he said.
“There is nothing more dangerous to a multicultural Australia today than the idea that some people have legal privileges on the basis of their race which do not exist for other people.”
Fellow commissioner Tim Soutphommasane also responded soon after the announcement, but supported the decision, saying the federal government had “listened to the community’s concerns”.
The changes to 18C had been publicly opposed by Labor and some government backbenchers including Craig Laundy and Alex Hawke.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was an “embarrassing backdown” by the government. He said Senator Brandis had been “rolled” and “humiliated”.
Referencing Senator Brandis’ comments earlier this year that Australians had the right to be bigots, Mr Shorten said “there is no right to be a bigot in this country”.
He also called on the government to back down on other plans, including “cuts to pensions, to schools, to hospitals”.