Inquiry stops short of proposing big changes to race hate laws

Inquiry stops short of proposing big changes to race hate laws

Fergus Hunter — The Sydney Morning Herald — February 28, 2017

An inquiry established by the Turnbull government in response to an internal push to reform race hate laws has stopped short of backing any major change, a result that could be a blow for the Coalition’s diehard free-speech advocates.

The parliamentary inquiry, convened in response to sustained backbench agitation towater down section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, instead suggested a raft of changes to the Human Rights Commission and its complaints handling process.

While the committee floated a handful of ideas for amendments to the contentious provision, it stopped short of making any formal recommendations for change.

The failure to back a single legislative proposal – the result of widespread disagreement inside the committee – has received mixed responses from MPs and activists pushing for the weakening of 18C, which makes it unlawful to ‘‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’’ on the basis of someone’s race.

The outcome leaves Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with an unclear path forward.

Without the cover of a firm recommendation from the committee, cabinet will now need to decide whether to avoid major change or bow to pressure from inside the Coalition party room for more substantive change. When he announced the inquiry in November, Mr Turnbull said it would be about ‘‘consensusbuilding’’ and ‘‘getting the balance right between a successful multicultural society and the freedom of speech that is fundamental to our democracy’’.

Liberal Party defector Cory Bernardi immediately dismissed the report as ‘‘a huge fail’’ and ‘‘no real defence of freedom of speech’’.

Conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs also expressed disappointment and said the deletion of 18C in its entirety was ‘‘the only certain way to restore free speech’’.

But Liberal senator James Paterson, a long-time advocate for change, defended it as a ‘‘big step forward’’.

‘‘There is now bipartisan consensus that the status quo must change. Everyone agrees that at the very least, the Human Rights Commission processes have failed and need to be overhauled,’’ he said.

Following sustained criticism of the commission and its president Gillian Triggs, the report calls for more parliamentary oversight of the independent body, and to hold two public meetings a year to examine its activities.

The report also suggests more support for peoplewho are the subject of complaints, stricter time limits on the complaints process, higher thresholds for complaints, refundable lodgement fees and increased power for the Human Rights Commission president to terminate complaints.

1HERSA1 A009 One of the proposals to change 18C includes removing the words ‘offend’, ‘insult’ and ‘humiliate’ and replacing them with ‘harass’.

In a sign the government will be pressed to address the proposals, Fairfax Media has been told a majority of the Liberal Party committee members supported them.

It is understood they will now be considered by cabinet. It is understood, however, that they are considered among the more ambitious options and it is not certain they will be pursued by the government.

Introducing the report to Parliament, Liberal MP Ian Goodenough said ‘‘compelling’’ and ‘‘distressing’’ cases of racism had been heard by the committee.

— with Michael Koziol


This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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