29 Dec Malcolm Turnbull faces section 18C test amid ethnic opposition
By Rosie Lewis
Malcolm Turnbull is facing a test over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act from the same community and ethnic groups that derailed Tony Abbott’s attempt to repeal it, as conservative MPs toughen their demands for change.
Pressure is building on the Turnbull government to back away from changing 18C, after the parliamentary joint committee on human rights published 135 submissions for its inquiry into freedom of speech.
Submissions from community groups to the inquiry, which the Prime Minister ordered to examine the law and the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission, show a backlash against reform that mirrors a campaign more than two years ago when Mr Abbott, as prime minister, promised to revoke 18C but was ultimately forced to abandon the controversial plan.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry claims in its submission that any amendment to 18C would send “a strong and dangerous message from Australia’s political leaders that a degree of racism in public discourse is to be considered acceptable”.
The Chinese Australian Forum predicts any change “may well see the Coalition government lose power and seats in the coming elections”, singling out the multicultural Sydney seats of Reid, Bennelong and Banks.
The comments have reignited divisions in the Coalition partyroom, with Liberal MP for Bennelong John Alexander questioning the need for the government-initiated inquiry.
Mr Abbott said the situation today was different from 2014, citing the recent complaints made against Queensland University of Technology students and The Australian’s cartoonist Bill Leak as reasons for change.
“(They) are egregious examples of this law being misused and the HRC going right over the top. There’s far more evidence of the damage section 18C can do now than there was then,” the former prime minister said.
“Amending 18C does not say it’s OK to be racist. That’s a ridiculous suggestion. It says it’s not illegal to say something just because some people might find it insulting or offensive.”
A Newspoll in October found that a majority of Australians — including Coalition, Labor and Greens supporters — opposed the legal case being taken against the QUT students for alleged racial hatred under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. It revealed 57 per cent of people opposed the action, under which the students were being sued for $250,000 after making comments on Facebook about segregation when students were told to leave an indigenous-only computer lab.
Pro-reform government MPs have seized on support within the Jewish, Chinese, Greek and Islamic communities to change the Human Rights Commission’s complaints-handling process and insist there is now an acknowledgment of a problem with the law.
Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson, who is a member of the human rights committee inquiring into 18C, said there was no way the government could embark on a reform process “that left 18C completely intact”. “In 2014 most of the ethnic community leaders said there was no problem — not even the process of the Human Rights Commission,” Senator Paterson said. “ Now everyone agrees we need change to fix this problem. The only question is how best we do that. There has certainly been inefficiencies in the process but a better and more efficient processing of a bad law still leaves a bad law in place.”
West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith acknowledged the position of Australia’s ethnic communities on 18C “looks to be consistent” with their 2014 views.
But he declared it was not inevitable reform would be abandoned because the debate was “significantly different”.
“They (the ethnic communities) do admit there is a problem (with the AHRC’s complaints handling process),” Senator Smith said. “This is an important and significant concession because they agree the way the law is applied is broken.
“It would be dangerous for people to assume that these opinions are the opinions of all Australians from multicultural backgrounds and that someone’s ethnicity limits their desire for a greater freedom of expression in Australia.”
Mr Alexander said ultimately he believed the committee would find “no change is really needed” to the law. But he backed modifications to the commission’s complaints process.
He said the mood on 18C had not changed since Mr Abbott made a “leadership call” to back down from his 2013 election pledge to repeal the law. At the time Mr Abbott said he wanted the communities of Australia “to be our friend, not our critic”.
“What I gathered from my community in 2014 was they didn’t want changes (to 18C),” Mr Alexander said.
“It would seem to them strange we’re revisiting it again so soon. We are a more enlightened society than we may have been in the past. Let the sleeping dog lie a little bit. When it (18C) is in place and there is protection all is good.
“If both the government and opposition concentrated on productive things rather than political things we would all be better off.”
Several community groups want the commission to minimise 18C claims brought in bad faith or which have no reasonable prospects of success before a court, and to speed up the conciliatory process. The Union for Progressive Judaism, which resources Jewish congregations, schools and youth groups, suggests the commission’s president, currently Gillian Triggs, be required to say whether an 18C complaint has a reasonable chance of being upheld within 60 days of receipt.
If the applicant pursues a complaint in the courts after the president’s opinion is expressed, the union recommends the president’s opinion be disclosed when the application is filed.
The parliamentary committee is due to report on February 28.