View from The Hill

Changing the Racial Discrimination Act: the power of one versus the voice of many

Sydney MP Craig Laundy has spoken out against changing the Racial Discrimination Act. AAP/Alan Porritt

The government’s dilemma in pursuing the so-called “Bolt amendment” to the Racial Discrimination Act has been highlighted by the experience of one of its new marginal seat holders in an electorate with a large ethnic population.

The Coalition committed to repealing section 18C of the act after a finding against conservative columnist Andrew Bolt over casting a judgment on light-skinned Aborigines.

But now it is finding a change driven by the experience of one journalist risks alienating many thousands of people across multiple ethnic communities.

Craig Laundy, who won the western Sydney seat of Reid from Labor in September, told The Conversation he has had about 1000 representations, many of them from groups with hundreds of members. “Zero” had said the act should be changed.

Laundy passed the message up the line. “I’m pretty pragmatic. I see my job of local member as listening to constituents and reporting their views. My electorate is telling me they want 18C as is,” he said. His seat is the third most multicultural in federal parliament.

“My feeling as a Liberal is that obviously there is an ideal side that says ‘free speech at all costs’. But with free speech comes responsibility. If you are going to say something that contravenes 18C, it’s not a contribution to a conversation that we want to have.”

This section prohibits actions that “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on racial grounds.

Laundy said that it might be that the words “offend” and “insult” could be either stiffened up or removed. “But not one person has contacted me arguing for abolition. It shows the feeling is very strong the other way.”

He personally “would like it to stay exactly as it is”.

Attorney-General George Brandis declared this week that the government would repeal 18C “in its current form” – which some on the right have read as a sign the government might back away from total repeal. Brandis is also proposing a change to the Criminal Code to protect people from racial vilification.

Appearing on the ABC’s Q&A, Brandis agreed the Bolt case was “the episode that, as it were, catalysed this debate nearly two years ago”.

The attorney said that “if we don’t repeal section 18C in its current form, we are going to say in this country that political censorship is okay”.

At the heart of the matter was the question: “In a free country, should people have the right to say things that other people find insulting or offensive or wounding? And I think they should.”

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus reaffirmed Labor’s opposition to changing the act. This means the government would need the support of crossbenchers in the new Senate if it were to get its change through.

Brandis on Wednesday called a doorstop to condemn as racist a Labor a leaflet attacking a Liberal Party candidate, Carolyn Habib, who is standing in the South Australian election.

“The leaflet depicts Carolyn Habib in silhouette against what appears to be a bullet-riddled wall, using only her surname, with the injunction – ‘don’t trust Habib’. This is, in our view, a thinly veiled racist slur,” he said.

Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, was held at Guantanamo Bay by the United States as an enemy combatant.

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