View from The Hill

Bad hair day for George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull

George Brandis was still defending the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act earlier this week. AAP/Lukas Coch

It can be cast as cutting and running, or a belated burst of much needed pragmatism. Tony Abbott’s ditching of his ill-conceived attempt to water down the Racial Discrimination Act gets a weight off his back, and is a thoroughly welcome move.

But it will leave the conservative true believers in a state of, well, disbelief.

Tim Wilson, the man the government appointed to be its freedom commissioner, tweeted that he was “very disturbed” to hear the government would “keep offensive speech illegal”.

Columnist Andrew Bolt – whose loss in court after he cast aspersions on fair-skinned Aborigines sparked the crazy crusade – and other members of the right-wing Abbott cheersquad have received a painful reminder about the way politics can trump ideology when a government is in a corner. How much they will make Abbott pay for this remains to be seen.

Some right wing members of his own backbench will be confused and critical, but Coalition MPs in marginal seats concerned about the ethnic vote will be deeply relieved. The assault on the RDA has cost the government much support in ethnic communities. Although some of the damage may remain, now at least the government can start a rebuilding process with those groups.

Attorney-General George Brandis, who infamously defended people’s right to be “bigots” and has been dealing with thousands of submissions condemning the government’s plan, might be thankful the nightmare’s over but he also has to wear personal humiliation. It appears he was only told of the ditching late in the piece – he was still defending changing the law on Monday.

Abbott, announcing the retreat in the context of his anti-terrorism package, took to himself the responsibility for the backdown – a broken election promise of course – saying: “This is a call that I have made. It is, if you like, a leadership call that I have made after discussion with the cabinet today. In the end leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision.”

He said the government was “determined to engage in ever closer consultation with communities including the Australian Muslim community”.

Everyone needed to be part of “Team Australia” in combating terrorism and the proposals to change Section 18C of the RDA had become a “complication”.

The presentation of the retreat as some sort of trade off was a fig leaf too far. But then, politicians find it hard to just say they got it wrong.

Meanwhile the government’s anti-terrorism measures have opened up a fresh area of debate about rights and liberties.

One proposal set to be controversial is that it would be an offence for a person to travel to a designated area - which could be a whole country (Syria and Iraq) - where terrorist organisations were conducting hostile activities, unless they had a legitimate purpose, such as family or humanitarian reasons.

“Naturally, that is a mechanism that will be used sparingly,” Brandis told the news conference at which Abbott, he and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared. This is not a guarantee that mistakes would not be made.

It was clear from senior officials later that a lot of detail remains to be filled in.

The government is more focused on making it easier to catch its quarry than on what could be the downside for ordinary and innocent people.

“We will only designate places based on the advice of our security agencies,” Abbott said.

“It will obviously be a defence to any prosecution that you were there for a perfectly legitimate reason.”

The government says it can be hard to get evidence about what a terrorist might have done overseas. It could be just as difficult, one might think, for a person to be able to prove they were in a place “for a perfectly legitimate reason”.

Another area of the proposed new laws that will be controversial is the plan to have telcos keep metadata for two years.

Intelligence sources say this is a matter of preserving records so that they can access traffic (not content) which, with changing technology, is increasingly likely to be discarded.

Asked on the ABC on Tuesday night what sort of information would be looked for, Bishop said: “These will be the details provided in the legislation as it goes forward”, adding that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull would be working closely with Brandis “to ensure that we only collect what our intelligence agencies need access to”.

There will be arguments about privacy and about the likely effectiveness of the measure in the fight against terrorism. Telcos are concerned, not least about who will bear the financial cost. The opposition is reserving judgement on its attitude.

The metadata plan caused an internal blow up on Tuesday, after Turnbull read about it in the Daily Telegraph and took his anger into cabinet.

It had been part of the discussion at Monday’s Cabinet National Security Committee, although in what detail is not clear. The Telegraph on Tuesday morning reported that Brandis and Turnbull would work on a data retention measure, in consultation with industry. Brandis was at NSC but Turnbull is not a member.

Turnbull raised the Telegraph article in cabinet – the Prime Minister’s office routinely uses the Telegraph as a bulletin board – as well as whether some colleagues understood what metadata was.

Both Brandis and Turnbull ended the day bruised, for different reasons.

But Turnbull had some reason for satisfaction. He had been vindicated on 18C. In an earlier memorable Turnbull cabinet blow up some months ago, he had torn apart Brandis’ submission on 18C. It turned out to be the beginning of the end.