Backbenchers support discrimination act rethink
The government's proposed changes to the discrimination act should be amended to achieve a better balance, says backbencher Zed Seselja.PT7M47S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-393gv 620 349 May 28, 2014
Attorney-General George Brandis is preparing to water down a controversial plan to scrap sections of the Racial Discrimination Act that restrict racist insults and hate speech, after an avalanche of submissions signalled concerns over the changes.
And two Liberal MPs who supported scrapping section 18C of the act have admitted the government needs to rethink proposed changes.
Forced to soften original plans: George Brandis. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Several MPs confirmed that, as one put it, ''there hasn't been a word whispered about it'' in recent weeks, while several speculated the law changes could be ''parked'' for months as the government grapples with a fierce budget backlash and a big drop in popular support.
Fairfax Media has learned Senator Brandis is working to further wind back the proposed changes, amid a ferocious grassroots community campaign that Labor MPs have quickly tapped into.
The Attorney-General was forced by the cabinet in March to soften his original plans amid a welter of protest from Coalition MPs in marginal electorates, some of whom represent large ethnic communities.
The proposed changes to the draft legislation by Senator Brandis have not been finalised and will not be put to cabinet for at least a month.
But it is understood a broad exemption from prosecution in the draft for ''words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in … the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter" could be watered down after a storm of community protest.
Similarly, a limitation in the draft definition of ''intimidate'' to ''cause fear of physical harm'' could also be broadened to include verbal bullying.
Some community groups have also argued against the proposed removal of provisions making it unlawful to ''offend, insult and humiliate'' someone because of their race or ethnicity.
Senator Brandis said on Tuesday that he was working through the 5300 submissions and the government ''didn't have a consultation period with the intention of not listening to what people have to say''.
''There is a large variety of views from all points of the opinion spectrum and we will take into consideration all of those views and we will arrive at a final proposal,'' he said.
NSW Liberal MP Alex Hawke, who has been a supporter of scrapping section 18C, admitted on Tuesday that changes needed to be made to the draft laws.
''We need to start again. I don't want see journalists prosecuted for offending [and] ethnic community leaders are making a compelling case that any reforms have to be very carefully handled,'' he said.
Fellow NSW MP Craig Kelly, who has also previously supported repeal of 18C, said he still supported doing something but ''the detail of the legislation, there are perhaps one or two words that could be moved around. I don't think the first draft that George has done is locked in concrete and I think everyone is flexible about changes to the proposed wording.''
A third MP, who also initially supported the changes, said he had been swamped by ethnic community leaders lobbying against the changes.
''I support protecting journalists but I'm now convinced the politics go well beyond that,'' the MP said.
However, Liberal senator Cory Bernardi said he still supported the proposals.
''Some principles are worth fighting for. I happen to believe freedom of speech is one of those principles,'' he said.
On Tuesday night, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told an Australian Federation of Islamic Councils dinner that ''any move to weaken protections against hate speech is a seriously retrograde step''.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said on Wednesday that there was ''overwhelming'' public support for existing racial discrimination laws to remain in place.
''I see no reason for changing laws that currently exist,'' Dr Soutphommasane.
''If it ain't broke, don't fix it.''
He also called for transparency from the government through the public release of the submissions on the proposed changes.
''It would be a good thing for the public debate for us to know what people have been saying in their submissions,'' he said.
''I suspect the overwhelming majority would be expressing their concerns about watering down our racial vilification laws.''