Indigenous leaders slam the Turnbull Government's announcement to water down racial hatred laws that remove the offence of insulting or offending people.
21 Mar 2017 - 10:25 AM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2017 - 8:47 AM

Indigenous leaders have slammed the Federal Government's announcement to water down racial hatred laws that remove the offence of insulting or offending people. 

AIATSIS Chair and Professor at the Australian National University, Mick Dodson, said there are more important things that the government needs to be focusing on, including their performance. 

"Not just their performance in the Indigenous affairs arena, but across the board. Why don't they deal with pressing issues of the nation? This isn't a pressing issue for the nation. It's a sop to the ultra-conservative side of conservative politics and it's a waste of time. It's flabbergasting," he told NITV News. 

"The Prime Minister just recently gave the Closing the Gap report and things are going backwards. Why are you worrying about 18c for when our kids are dying? Get some focus here." 

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Co-Chair of the Referendum Council, Pat Anderson, also says the changes are a waste of time and resources. 

"They just got to read 18D and it fixes itself. [They've wasted] all that time and energy when they should be focused on what we're gonna do next. It's just ridiculous," she told NITV. 

"It's a waste of our time." 

The Government today announced it will water down the Racial Discrimination Act. The words 'offend', 'insult', and 'humiliate' will be replaced with the word 'harass' under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told a press conference changing the laws are about striking the right balance. 

"Defending freedom of speech so that cartoonists will not be hauled up and accused of racism, so that university students won't be dragged through the courts and pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal costs imposed on them over spurious claims of racism," he said.  

"The time has come to get the balance right, to get the language right, to defend our freedom of speech and defend Australians with effective laws, clear laws, against racial vilification." 

Attorney-General George Brandis says the legislation will correct some important gaps in the existing laws. 

"It will, importantly, introduce the consent of harassment as one of the grounds of racial vilification," he said.

Labor senators heckled Senator Brandis for wearing an orange Harmony Day ribbon, calling on him to remove it as he defended the changes to race-hate laws.

Indigenous Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy asked the attorney-general what it was he wanted to be able to say to people like her or others from different races.

"As a white man growing up in Petersham and attending private schools I'm sure you've never been denied access or service to a shop," she said.

"You've never had taxis drive past pretending not to see you, you've never received hateful letters or emails because of your race or the colour of your skin.

"I really wish I could believe there aren't any racists in Australia but certainly my personal experience, my family's experience, informs me of the reality that I live in this country."

Mr Turnbull says the changes will strengthen race hate laws. 

"These are stronger laws, more effective laws, because they are clearer laws. We are strengthening the Racial Discrimination Act. We are strengthening it because it's clearer, it will be a more effective protection against race hate," he said. 

Earlier, Labor took the Turnbull government to task for wasting time over the laws, when Australians expect it to focus on issues affecting their everyday lives.

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Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said ordinary Australians who had seen their wages cut or not growing, cuts to family tax benefits, would be wondering how the government was so out of touch.

"We've got a law that is working well to protect people from racial hate speech - why don't we just leave it alone and actually focus on what makes a difference to people's lives?" she told reporters in Canberra.

Liberal MP Craig Laundy, who holds the marginal western Sydney seat of Reid, has vowed to stand up for his multicultural electorate during any party room debate.

He is comfortable with section 18C of the Act, telling ABC radio the issue was only raised in his electorate when it was spoken about in the media.

Key crossbench senator Nick Xenophon supports a change to the investigation processes used by the Human Rights Commission, but doubts a re-wording of 18C would get through parliament.

"Clearly the process has become the punishment in many cases," he told ABC radio.

"It is beyond me why some of these cases got to the stage that they got to only to be easily dealt with once section 18D, the defence was considered. 

A parliamentary committee failed to find a consensus on changing the law but called for changes to the commission's handling of complaints.

Tuesday is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as well as Harmony Day, an Australian celebration of cultural diversity.

Cabinet minister Mathias Cormann said it was very important to keep working to remove racial discrimination.

"But what is also important to is ensure that our relevant laws are effective, are workable and have broad community support."