Federal Politics

License article

George Brandis accused of 'gagging' race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane over changes to race-hate laws

Labor Senator Lisa Singh has accused Attorney-General George Brandis of ''gagging'' race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, while allowing ''freedom'' commissioner Tim Wilson to speak on the government's proposed changes to the Race Discrimination Act.

During Senate estimates hearings, Senator Brandis also clashed with outgoing disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes over the downgrading of Mr Innes' role.

Mr Wilson was asked during the hearing by Senator Singh whether he supported Senator Brandis' assertion in March that Australians have a ''right to be a bigot'', and on the proposed changes to the Race Discrimination Act, which the Attorney-General is preparing to alter again.

The proposed changes to race-hate laws set out in the Act have drawn an avalanche of protesting submissions from ethnic and communities groups, while Senator Brandis' own backbench has also strongly criticised the winding back of legal protections.

Senator Singh asked Dr Soutphommasane – a critic of the government's changes – to comment but committee chair Ian Macdonald ruled the questions out of order as it was ''hypothetical'' and sought an opinion.


Senator Brandis said he was of ''aware of Dr Soutphommasane's views on this. I think Dr Soutphommasane's views are very well known to the public.''

But later in the hearing, Mr Wilson was allowed to re-state his clear support for changing the Act.

''I have made it quite clear that I support in the public domain changes to the Act. That includes the submission which is available on the website which is publicly accessible. I have not changed my view,'' he said.

''I have said with relation to the exposure draft that was put out by the government that it was a good basis to start the discussion about how it would be changed.''

After the hearing, Senator Singh said Dr Soutphommasane ''was gagged, in complete contradiction to Tim Wilson who was able to share his views on the RDA''.

''Senator Brandis initially stopped me from asking the question and accused me of being dishonest in asking for Dr Soutphommasane’s views,'' Senator Singh.

''This is a man who stands for freedom of speech yet won't allow a witness at the table to speak.''

Dr Soutphommasane said he accepted the chair's ruling.

''I was disappointed not to have the opportunity to express my serious concerns about the Race Discrimination Act exposure draft,'' he said.

Mr Innes' position, which was cut in the budget, receives nearly 40 per cent of all complaints to the commission, more than double the sex discrimination commissioner, the next most common source of complaints.

He told the Senate hearing people with disabilities would be severely disadvantaged by the loss of a full-time commissioner.

Senator Brandis refused to accept that the removal of the full-time commissioner is a downgrading of the role.

''To say it has been abolished or downgraded is a lie,'' he said.

''You shouldn't assume where this will end. It may be that in the end, the best allocation of function among the commissioners is to have only one person doing the disability discrimination work, especially with the NDIS coming and I will be doing more work with the president.''

But Mr Innes, who is also legally blind, shot back: ''To not view this as a downgrading is a fascinating point of view.''

Mr Innes said of the nearly 40 per cent of complaints to the Commission that come from people with disabilities, 45 per cent of them related to employment discrimination.

He told the Senate hearing that the role required 60 hours a week and that a part-time commissioner would  ''undoubtedly not'' be able to fulfil the requirements of the role.

''Inevitably the number of complaints in this area will increase and there is systemic work that will need to be done by someone in the role of disability discrimination commissioner,'' he said.

The Commission's president, Gillian Triggs, agreed that the number of complaints was very high: ''Disability complaints comprise by far the largest component. It is 39 per cent and tends to increase each year.''

Also in the hearing, Senator Singh pressed Mr Wilson to ''specifically answer whether as human rights commissioner, whether you believe that people have a right to be bigots''.

Mr Wilson responded: ''People have an absolute right to freedom of thought which ranges from wonderful thoughts to some ...''

''I'll take that as a yes,'' Senator Singh interjected.

''No, the answer is that people in terms of freedom of speech have a right of freedom of speech within limitations.''

Follow us on Twitter