The great race debate
Do the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act proposed by Attorney-General George Brandis go too far? Greens Senator Larissa Waters and Nationals MP Andrew Broad deliver their verdicts.PT2M19S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-35k7g 620 349 March 27, 2014
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Federal cabinet forced George Brandis to soften his original proposal to loosen constraints on racist insults and hate speech.
In a lengthy cabinet meeting on Monday night - and amid growing backbench concerns - Senator Brandis watered down his proposals for changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
George Brandis: "Bigot" comment had "inflamed the situation". Photo: Andrew Meares
The Attorney-General was instead obliged to settle for only a draft exposure bill. This allows the government position to remain fluid and community groups to react. The changes proposed to the act in an exposure draft on release to the government party room on Tuesday contained a weakening of Senator Brandis' original proposals.
The outcome represented what one minister described as a compromise between the conservative and moderate factions. One minister said: ''George has really drunk the right-wing Kool-Aid.''
Another minister said Mr Brandis' original proposal was ''much worse'' than the agreed text and he had been forced to back down. A third minister present at the meeting said the original bill had been ''terrible''.
Asked if the cabinet had forced the change from a bill to an exposure draft, that minister said ''things are evolving all the time'' and that the exposure draft still ''needs to be changed quite substantially''.
The exposure draft released has proposed section 18C, which makes it unlawful for someone to act in a manner likely to ''offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate'' someone because of their race or ethnicity, would be repealed while section 18D, which provides protections for freedom of speech, will be removed and replaced by a new section.
The changes remove the words ''offend, insult and humiliate'', leave in ''intimidate'' and adds the word ''vilify'' for the first time.
But a passage in the exposure draft that exempts words and images "in public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter", has attracted a storm of criticism for being too broad and weakening current protections.
Fairfax Media can also reveal that members of a government legal affairs backbench committee that examined the bill had flagged the need for changes to the bill and for additional consultation.
"Normally these things get rubber stamped," an MP familiar with the process said. "I can't see [the exposure draft] surviving in its current form. And I've got no doubt the legislation will be much better."
Several MPs told Fairfax that indigenous MP Ken Wyatt's warning in the party room two Tuesdays ago that he could cross the floor if changes were not made had been a significant turning point in the development of the legislation.
Aside from Mr Wyatt, Coalition MPs including Victorians Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood have raised concerns about the changes to the act with Senator Brandis.
A second backbench MP said the proposed changes to the Act, which were prompted by a 2011 legal case involving News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, had been "going fine until George made his bigot comment, which completely inflamed the situation".
Senator Brandis said this week that "people do have a right to be bigots, you know."
The government has promised to consult on the exposure draft of the bill until April 30. A spokesman for Senator Brandis declined to comment on cabinet discussions.