Free-speech crusaders ‘close’ to eroding Racial Discrimination Act, says Liberal Senator

Free-speech crusaders ‘close’ to eroding Racial Discrimination Act, says Liberal Senator

By Jared Owens

Free-speech crusaders are “closer than ever” to eroding the controversial Racial Discrimination Act, Liberal senator James Paterson said last night, saying Malcolm Turnbull should be “taking up the mantle and leading” on the hot-button issue.

Tony Abbott angered his supporters in 2014 by abandoning an election promise to repeal the law, amid fears that loosening restrictions on speech could stymie efforts to silence radical preachers.

However Coalition MPs, buoyed by the recent election of like-minded senators including Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch, are ramping up pressure on senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, to revisit the issue.

The issue has gained additional prominence this week with libertarian senator David Leyonhjelm complaining about a newspaper column that described him as an “angry white male”.

Senator Paterson said the parliament was “closer than we ever have been to passing 18C reform through the parliament”.

“My assessment is we are only one or two votes away from where we need to be in the Senate and the right bill, well-crafted, with the right approach, has a very good prospect of passing this parliament,” the Victorian senator told Sky News.

“The Prime Minister has spoken about his support for freedom of speech in the past. He has said that he would be quite comfortable with a bill … which does take out insult and offend from the act, so I think it’s a question of him taking up the mantle and leading on this.”

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act prohibits speech that is “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on the basis of “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

The law does not apply to comments made “reasonably and in good faith” in pursuit of art, science, the public interest or academia. Fair comment that is a genuine belief held by the author is also protected.

Liberal minister Scott Ryan, also a Victorian senator, said the continuation of section 18C “still troubles a lot of people on my side of politics” after it was used successfully against newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt.

“It’s not in my portfolio. It is a matter for the Attorney-General, and as I understand he has indicated that the position, as announced a couple of years ago, stands. It is not a priority for the Government moving forward,” Senator Ryan said, describing himself as a “First Amendment person” who was “out on the edge of freedom of speech”.

Mark Dreyfus, the opposition legal affairs spokesman, yesterday called on Mr Turnbull to “step up and categorically rule out any changes to section 18C”.

“Mr Turnbull’s refusal so far to condemn this attack on Australia’s protections against racist hate speech is a reflection of the spinelessness of the Turnbull government and on Mr Turnbull’s utter lack of leadership within the Liberal Party,” he said.

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