A report into changes to the Racial Discrimination Act has failed to reach a consensus on whether parts of the legislation should be changed to prevent racial discrimination.
A Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights into Freedom of Speech in Australia offered 22 recommendations for change - but recommended no major changes be made to the section of the Act that covers freedom of speech.
Inquiry Chair, MP Ian Goodenough, said in his tabling statement to the Committee that 18C of the Act must pass the proverbial pub test.
"Our duty is to govern for all Australians, and that includes mainstream Australians who feel that their right to free speech is being infringed by political correctness and the over zealous (sic) application of laws such as Section 18C," he said.
"Mainstream Australians deserve the same rights as racial and ethnic minorities. It is important that the law does not promote reverse discrimination."
Many Coalition MPs and crossbench senators support the watering down of section 18C of the Act which makes it illegal 'to offend, insult or humiliate someone on the basis of race.'
They're pushing to see the removal of the words 'insult' and 'offend' from the Act to lift restrictions on freedom of speech.
Independent Senator Cory Bernarndi says the result is a huge fail.
Liberal MP Eric Abetz said the government must now urgently move on the issue.
“While I am disappointed that the Committee didn’t reach a firm landing on section 18C, quite clearly there are serious issues which must be addressed,” Senator Abetz said.
“The report’s recommendations on cleaning up oversight of the Human Rights Commission and ensuring that they have more tools in their toolbox to deal with problematic or vexatious complaints are welcome and should be progressed as a matter of urgency.”
The report provides a range of proposals to be put to government for consideration. They include;
- Removing the words offend, insult, and humiliate from section 18c and replacing them with harass
- Give the Commission more power to provide assistance to complainants; and
- Allow the Commission to make orders on frivolous claims
But crucially the Committee made suggestions that no changes should be made to section 18C and section 18D.
But section 18D allows almost anything as long as it's 'said or done reasonably and in good faith.'
Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek says any changes to the Racial Discrimination Act is just a distraction.
"It is a ridiculous thing for Government members to be so obsessed about, particularly when section 18D of the Race Discrimination Act has explicit protections for free speech. It amazes me that people who should be thinking about that fact that workers in their electorates have just got up to $77 a week pay cut, that we lost 56,000 jobs in Australia last year, that we’ve got underemployment at historic highs, that we’ve got inequality at 75 year highs, that we’ve got substantial company profits while workers’ pay is being cut - that’s the sort of thing that Government members should be focused on, and instead they’re obsessed with this side show," she said.
Other parties warn a change to the Act could have serious ramifications.
Labor Senator for Western Australia, Louise Pratt, says it could set the country back dramatically.
"When I say our laws have served us well, I know that from talking to people personally. When you talk to Aboriginal Australians about what is was like to grow up in Australia in the 1960’s and 70’s and 80’s when I was a child, there was plenty of hate speech and racist speech around. We changed our national laws, we changed our national culture, using laws like this," she said.
"I hope that he [Malcolm Turnbull] stands up for an inclusive and tolerant Australia that doesn’t allow vilification and hate speech."
Wiradjuri Labor MP Linda Burney says the legislation has protected and worked for Australians for well over twenty years.
"This flurry by the same group of malcontents to change 18c are the same group who would argue about not having constitutional reform for Aboriginal people," she said.
"It has the potential of unleashing some very ugly racism in this country and Australia is a place that is very hard to deal with its issues about the beginnings of colonisation, it's worked very hard in terms of the amazing multicultural nature and the way in which Australia has been built."
Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane says the laws are working as they are, and do not place excessive limits on free speech.
"I believe the current forms of the Racial Discrimination Act strike an appropriate balance between freedom of speech and freedom from racial vilification. I don't believe there's a persuasive or compelling case for changing a provision that has existed for more than 20 years and which provides all Australians with the protection against racial hatred and vilification," he told the Committee.
It will now be up to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to decide on what happens next.
The decision will put pressure on the government with the Liberal Party split over whether to water down the legislation.
Australia's bid for UN Human Rights Council
The report comes as Australia makes its first formal bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, seeking to join the 47-nation council from next year.
Minister for International Development, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, presented Australia's case to the UN. She says Australia is well placed to protect human rights.
"We think that this is Australia's time. Our vast region of the Pacific has never had representation on the human rights council before. This is a very large area and it includes large economies like ours but it also includes smaller states, whose voices, we believe, should be heard. We are a unique country. We are the gold standard model of what is a tolerant and welcoming society," she said.
Ms Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is accompanied by Bangarra Dance Theatre in Geneva to support the bid.
Indigenous Affairs overlooked in Senate Estimates
Meanwhile in Senate Estimates Attorney-General George Brandis called for an overhaul of the Australian Human Rights Commission and its complaints handling process.
But it didn't come before Mr Brandis admitted to NXT Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore that the government left Indigenous Affairs off the Parliamentary Calendar because they completely overlooked it.