• PM vows to change race hate laws 'to protect free speech'. (AAP)Source: AAP
A Parliamentary report has recommended proposed changes to Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act be passed.
28 Mar 2017 - 10:14 AM  UPDATED 28 Mar 2017 - 2:55 PM

The Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs has recommended passing the government's controversial changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, despite dissenting reports from Labor and the Greens

The committee found reforms to the Act were overdue, stating that 'strengthening the protections against hateful speech based on race, colour or national or ethnic origin on one hand, and enhancing the rights of freedom of speech,' the report said. 

Currently, Section 18 makes it unlawful to offend, insult and humiliate someone or a group of people on the basis of their race.

The government is proposing to remove "offend", insult, and "humiliate" and replace them with "harass" while retaining the word "intimidate." 

But Labor members of the Committee have criticised the inquiry after no Indigenous Australians or representative bodies were invited to appear before the Committee, despite the availability of the NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service who sought to be heard during the hearing. 

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Labor also criticised the inquiry time frame saying a rigorous and timely process was shut down by the government and instead demanded a committee report just a week after the bill was introduced. 

The Greens are also opposed to any changes to section 18c. 

Their dissenting reports said, 'a majority of submitters stated that the proposed changes to 18C that remove the words 'offend, insult, humiliate' and substitute 'harass' would weaken the current protections which exist against racial vilification in Australia.' 

Both parties recommend changes to section 18c of the Act be rejected by the Senate. 

The bill also contains measures to reform the complaints handling process if the Australian Human Rights Commission and to make minor amendments to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act to enhance its operation and efficiency. 

The reasonable persons test will also be introduced as the objective standard by which contravention of section 18c be judged, as opposed to by a hypothetical person.  

The Opposition sought to suspend the debate on the bill until Thursday but the bid failed after the majority of the crossbench voted with the government. 

Polling shows most oppose changes 

A majority of Australians oppose the Turnbull government's efforts to change the race-hate laws, new polling shows.

The Fairfax-Ipsos poll of 1400 voters shows 78 per cent believe it should be unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

Proponents of the reform say it will make the law stronger and better defined, citing concerns that the current law limits freedom of speech.

But opponents of the change say there are already exemptions.

Despite the poll showing high levels of opposition, support for amending section 18C has increased by 10 percentage points since former prime minister Tony Abbott dropped planned reforms in 2014.

The poll findings come as a report into the proposed reforms, which also includes changes to the way the Human Rights Commission considers complaints, will be released on Tuesday.

The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee was given less than a week to inquire into the bill, sparking outrage from Labor and the Greens.

There is strong support among senators for the commission changes, but resistance to the new wording for the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Law Council told the inquiry the existing laws struck the right balance between freedom of speech and protection from racial vilification.

Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie says she is open to supporting a split bill, with the Act changes separated from the operational changes.

- with AAP

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