Free speech back on agenda after election

08 Aug Free speech back on agenda after election

Liberal senators are backing plans for new legislation to protect free speech in a move to launch public hearings into Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, reviving a contentious reform hat divided Tony Abbott’s government more than two years ago.

West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith is pushing for a parliamentary inquiry to thrash out the changes in the wake of growing  calls for change from some of the crossbenchers who will share the balance of power in the upper house.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Liberal Democratic Party  are joining Family First in  reviving the campaign against Section 18C, which makes it an offence to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone on the grounds of their race, colour or ethnic origin.

The crossbench moves  suggest that the reform would gain support from eight of the 11 crossbench senators including David Leyonhjelm from the LDP, Bob Day from Family First, Derryn Hinch from Derryn Hinch’s  Justice Party and the four senators from One Nation.

Senator Smith welcomed those moves yesterday and said a first step should be to launch a parliamentary inquiry that could hear all sides of  the argument.

Victorian Liberal James Paterson said the support from the crossbench meant there was an opportunity to get changes made. “That means there is a very good chance a bill to fix  8C could pass the parliament if the government takes it up, as I will be advocating for it to,” he said.

Labor and the Greens have warned against changing the law on the grounds that it would leave ethnic groups exposed to attack, while the issue divides the Coalition in the wake of the decision to abandon reform in 2014 even though Mr Abbott pledged to repeal 18C. Mr Hinch has  publicly called for the issue to be tackled while One Nation senator-elect Malcolm Roberts said public debate needed more open speech. “What tends to happen is we address the messenger rather than the message. This issue is not  discussed instead because people are afraid of speaking up,” he said.

Senator Leyonhjelm said he would introduce a bill to remove Section 18C. “If you  want to take offence, that’s your choice. You have the choice of choosing another feeling,” he said on ABC’s Insiders program. “Offence is always taken, not given.’’

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