Kate Darvall, Daily Mail, March 21, 2017
Malcolm Turnbull has angrily rejected suggestions his government is watering down race-hate laws in favour of freedom of speech, as parliament marks Harmony Day.
Attorney-General George Brandis will bring to parliament later this week changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to replace the words ‘offend, insult and humiliate’ with ‘harass and intimidate’, making it harder to successfully make claims.
‘We are strengthening the race-hate laws,’ Mr Turnbull told reporters.
‘They are clearer and they clearly express the type of conduct that should be prohibited, not mere slights or the taking of offence or hurt feelings.’
Senator Brandis said no other country prohibited offending, insulting or humiliating speech and the language change reflected the original intention of the laws brought in by Labor over two decades ago.
Labor leader Bill Shorten told parliament it was typical of the government to weaken protections against racism on Harmony Day – which celebrates racial tolerance and inclusion.
Last year, Mr Turnbull repeatedly said the government had no plans to change the law and it was not a priority, but he has been under pressure from within Liberal ranks and minor parties such as One Nation to act.
‘This isn’t about free speech, it’s about Malcolm Turnbull appeasing his party,’ Mr Shorten said.
‘How much more will Australia throw overboard to save this man’s job? Labor will never support the right to be a bigot.’
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said Senator Brandis gave the game away when he said changing the offence to harassment was a stronger term.
Raising the legal bar would make it harder for people to complain against racist speech, he said.
‘Every single ethnic community in Australia has been betrayed by this government,’ Mr Dreyfus told reporters.
Egyptian-born Labor MP Anne Aly told parliament she faced racism while she was growing up ‘and even in my life now’.
‘What exactly does the prime minister want people to be able to say that they cannot say now?’ she asked Mr Turnbull.
In response, the prime minister said all Australians were opposed to racism in any form and it was offensive to suggest people who supported law reform were somehow racist.
Under the changes, the test to be applied in complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission will be the standard of a ‘reasonable member of the community’.
The commission will also have greater powers to filter complaints which are deemed to be frivolous or without merit and those who are the subject of the complaint will get an early warning when a complaint is lodged.
Fewer than four per cent of complaints to the AHRC related to section 18C and fewer than four cases progressed to court each year.
At least four coalition MPs expressed misgivings about the wording changes, but will support the legislation in parliament.
The changes will need to run the gauntlet of the Senate later this week, where the government needs nine out of 11 crossbench votes to succeed.
Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon supports a change to the investigation processes used by the AHRC, but doubts a re-wording of Section 18C will get through parliament.
Greens senator Nick McKim said making changes to 18C was exactly what multicultural Australia had asked the prime minister not to do.
A Labor senator interjected to say that Senator Brandis should remove his orange Harmony Day ribbon from his jacket.
Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act currently makes it an offence to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate an individual or people based on race.
The changes expected to be announced will be a victory for freedom of speech because they will draw a line between someone having their feelings hurt and someone actually feeling threatened.
The way the Human Rights Commission deals with complaints also faces change.
The race-hate speech laws were championed by the Keating government in 1995, and have been hotly contested ever since.
Mr Turnbull has faced calls from within the coalition to water down the laws in the interest of freedom of speech to bring an end to frivolous ‘racist’ complaints.
But he also faced ongoing pressure from the opposition to keep the laws in place.
Mr Shorten said Mr Turnbull’s integrity hung in the balance of his decision as he would have ‘sold the last shred of his integrity to hang onto his own job’.
‘Tuesday’s party room meeting is a test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership,’ Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said.
‘Will he back the ‘right to be a bigot’, or will he back modern, multicultural Australia?’
A Liberal MP has also vowed to stand up for his multicultural electorate when his federal coalition colleagues debated changes to the race-hate speech laws.
Craig Laundy, who holds the marginal western Sydney seat of Reid, said he was comfortable with a contentious section of the Racial Discrimination Act despite a likely change that will replace the words ‘insult’ and ‘offend’ with ‘harass’.
‘If that is what comes into the party room I will stand up and as I’ve done for four years, fight for the people of Reid,’ he told ABC radio ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he was working on a response to a parliamentary committee’s report into freedom of speech, which failed to find a consensus on changing the law but called for changes to the commission’s handling of complaints.
Mr Turnbull said the joint standing committee on human rights had written a ‘very good report’ and he was considering its findings.
The committee failed to reach a conclusion on 18C but called for sweeping changes to the operation of the Human Rights Commission, including that it offer reasonable assistance to respondents of complaints.
It also recommended time limits for the handling of complaints, refundable complaint lodgement fees, and an ability for respondents to complaints to apply to terminate the case.
The prime minister on Monday released a new multicultural statement which he said would ‘renew and reaffirm’ Australia’s commitment to being a multicultural nation in which racism and discrimination have no place and integration and contribution are core elements.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said an announcement about Section C of the Racial Discrimination Act was likely after the coalition joint party room meeting.
‘No doubt something will be brought to the joint party room in due course,’ he told ABC’s Lateline program on Monday night.
‘Let’s wait for (Tuesday) and we will have this discussion then.’