Malcolm Turnbull has announced a watering down of the controversial Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, in a major victory for the conservatives in the Liberal Party.
Under the proposal the words “offend, insult, humiliate” will be replaced by “harass”. The word “intimidate” will remain.
Turnbull argued the government was “strengthening” the act, not weakening it.
In a series of changes to the act and the Human Rights Commission legislation, the government will introduce a “reasonable member of the Australian community” standard by which contraventions of 18C should be judged (rather than the present “reasonable member of the relevant community”), and toughen the commission’s processes to stop spurious claims and give greater fairness to those subject to complaints.
The legislation will raise the threshold for the commission to accept a complaint, provide additional powers for it terminate unmeritorious complaints, and limit access to the courts for unsuccessful complaints.
The change was unveiled on Harmony Day.
The Coalition partyroom overwhelmingly backed the measures, but five MPs – Julian Leeser, David Coleman, Julia Banks, Russell Broadbent and Craig Laundy, who is an assistant minister – opposed the change in wording. There is concern among some Liberals that the issue will lose them votes in seats with large ethnic communities.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told the partyroom if MPs kept talking about 18C, votes would be lost because it would distract from the government’s agenda.
Turnbull said the new 18C would “strengthen the protections of Australians from racial vilification and strengthen the protection of free speech – one of the fundamental freedoms upon which our democracy depends”.
The wording of the present law had “lost the credibility that a good law needs”. “If you have language that is too wide, too general, it has a chilling effect on free speech,” he said.
He admitted there would be many critics and opponents of the change – “but this is an issue of values … free speech is a value at the very core of our party”.
In parliament Labor MP Anne Aly, who said she had been subject to racism time and again, pressed Turnbull on what he wanted people to be able to say that they could not now. He replied: “The suggestion that those people who support a change to the wording of Section 18C are somehow or other racist is a deeply offensive one”, listing a number of critics of 18C.
In the Senate, Indigenous senator Malarndirri McCarthy said Turnbull had “on at least 16 occasions ruled out his government amending Section 18C”.
Before the election Turnbull indicated he did not plan to revisit 18C. His predecessor, Tony Abbott, had moved to reform it but then retreated. Abbott at the party meeting congratulated Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis, saying the situation had altered since his experience.
Asked at his news conference what had changed since his earlier stand, Turnbull cited the experience of the QUT university students who endured a long court case, which finally failed, and the late Bill Leak being taken to the commission over a cartoon in The Australian, a complaint which was dropped.
The changes will be introduced in the Senate and their fate will depend on what the Nick Xenophon Team does. Xenophon told the ABC that he supported comprehensive reform of the commission’s processes but did not support overhauling the wording.
“Let’s get rid of those frivolous and, some would say, vexatious claims by improving the process and then we can then look down the track, if there are still problems in respect to the wording,” he said.
He said there was strong feedback from a whole range of ethnic communities, including the Jewish community and Islamic communities, saying the wording should be kept as it was.
Xenophon later in a statement confirmed his Team’s opposition to changing 18C’s wording.
Conservative Liberal senator Eric Abetz, who has campaigned for change to 18C, said that: “Today’s announcement will be welcomed by Australians who prioritise freedom of speech above politically correct left-wing groupthink”.
“I am also pleased that the government will rein in the Australian Human Rights Commission which has morphed into self-appointed thought police,” Abetz said.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the 18C change “isn’t about free speech, it’s about the prime minister appeasing his party”.
“The only two cases the prime minister held up today as his rationale could both have been addressed by improving the process – not by changing the law,” Shorten told parliament. He said the change to the Racial Discrimination Act would “make it easier for people to be insulted or humiliated on the basis of race”.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane tweeted:
The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils expressed dismay at the proposal to change 18C. Chairman Joe Caputo said it sent “a strong signal that racism is acceptable”.
“Australia’s international reputation as a strong, successful multicultural and multi-faith community is threatened by this proposal,” he said.