Federal Attorney-General George Brandis has unveiled the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, scrapping section 18C prohibiting actions that “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people on racial grounds.
After approval from the Coalition’s party room Brandis released an exposure draft for a new section that includes a provision against intimidation and creates a new protection from racial vilification.
There will be a month’s community consultation on the changes, the anticipation of which has sparked deep concern from ethnic groups and the Jewish lobby.
The Attorney-General said the present legislation unreasonably limited freedom of speech.
“I have always said that freedom of speech and the need to protect people from racial vilification are not inconsistent objectives. Laws which are designed to prohibit racial vilification should not be used as a vehicle to attack legitimate freedom of speech,” Brandis told a news conference.
He described the change as an “important reform and a key part of the government’s freedom agenda. It sends a strong message about the kind of society that we want to live in where freedom of speech is allowed to flourish and racial vilification and intimidation are not tolerated.”
He said the existing absence of a ban on vilification was a “gaping hole”. The present provisions did not effectively address the vice they were meant to address - vilification, he said.
To “intimidate” is defined as “to cause fear of physical harm” to a person, a person’s property, or the members of a group of people. To vilify is defined as meaning “to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons”.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus accused the government of giving the green light to racism. He said the proposed provision to protect free speech - replacing the existing section 18D - “is so broadly worded that it totally undermines the limited protections against racism that remain” in the draft.
Some Coalition MPs, especially those with large ethnic communities in their seats, have publicly and privately raised serious worries about the government’s intention to amend the act. Indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt last week threatened to cross the floor. Brandis said the exposure draft was unanimously approved by the party room, but it will go back there after the consultations.
Brandis earlier this week said that “people do have a right to be bigots”.
The rewriting of the Racial Discrimination Act has been driven by the court finding against columnist Andrew Bolt who cast aspersions on the motivations of fair skinned Aborigines. But Brandis said it was not just the Bolt experience, which he described as an “infamous” case. Journalists and editors had indicated to him that the section had a restrictive effect. Brandis said the government wanted the “tone” of our society to be elevated.