• Attorney General George Brandis and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. File Image. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Two months ago, the Prime Minister said any changes to Australia's race hate laws weren't a priority. But this changed today, with the announcement of an inquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act.
Ella Archibald-Binge, NITV Staff Writers

8 Nov 2016 - 4:52 PM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2016 - 4:52 PM

Attorney-General George Brandis announced a parliamentary inquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act and the complaints handling procedures of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told parliament an inquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act is needed, despite having previously rejected the proposition.

"We'll have a calm, we’ll have a reasoned discussion, and we'll see what consensus emerges," Mr Turnbull says.

Even before the announcement, some had accused the prime minister of abandoning his stance on the country's race hate laws in order to keep parliamentary stability.

Labor MP Linda Burney told NITV: “An inquiry is just a way of the PM politically appeasing those in his party that he owes a lot to, and that is his leadership.”

The government’s change of heart comes amidst two high-profile discrimination cases brought under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it illegal to offend, insult, intimidate or humiliate someone based on their race.

In Brisbane, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) employee Cindy Prior accused three students of racial vilification when they made a string of Facebook posts after being asked to leave the university's Indigenous computer lab.

That case was thrown out of court last Friday on the basis it would have "no reasonable prospect of success".

Tony Morris QC, barrister for Calum Thwaites, one of the QUT students, believes "everyone is a victim here, Mr Wood, Mr Pal, Mr Thaiwtes but also Ms Prior, the complainant, [they] are all victims."

Some argue the court's decision to dismiss the case shows that the law works. But 18C critics believe that time, stress and money was wasted on a case that should never have made it to court - further illustrating the need to amend the legislation.

Liberal senator Zed Sesleja believes the process is flawed.

"I don't think that anyone would look at what we've seen in relation to this case and think that that's been a good process," he says.

The second case driving debate is against controversial cartoonist Bill Leak, whose divisive illustration targeting Indigenous dads published on The Australian newspaper prompted a string of complaints to the Human Rights Commission, including one from the Western Australian Aboriginal Legal Service (ALSWA).

ALSWA CEO Dennis Egginton told NITV the cartoon made him feel very angry as Indigenous men were depicted as “uncaring, drunken fathers who plant a bad seed into our women, and that seed grows into devil children.”

Leak supporters argue 18C is stifling the cartoonist's right to free speech. Even though Leak is under investigation, many have leapt to his defence, including Malcolm Turnbull and former PM John Howard, who hailed the cartoon as "brilliant".

Dennis Eggington believes this is a case of minority groups being silenced for trying to defend themselves.

I think the Bill Leak cartoon, the discourse around 18C and the amendment to the discrimination laws in this country are all about putting us back in our box. How dare Aboriginal speak out? How dare Aboriginal people go to the media?” he argues.  

What happens next?

Even though some question the merit of the inquiry, the majority of the Coalition and a handful of crossbenchers support it, and the President of the Human Rights Commission has welcomed the idea.

Professor Gillian Triggs says the Commission is open for the inquiry to find ways of strengthening section 18C of the act, which prohibits expression that offends or insults on the basis of race.

She told the ABC the Commission would welcome changes that could help its handling of cases.

"As far as 18C is concerned, we're open to seeing what the inquiry might suggest, whether the language might be clarified and - in our view - strengthened that enables us to support the multicultural society that we are,” Triggs said.

When questioned if she considered the suggestion of replacing the words 'offend' and 'insult' with 'vilify' would be a strengthening of section 18C, Triggs responded she considered that as a strengthening.

“It could be a very useful thing to do," she added.

However, Labor and the Greens oppose any changes.

Linda Burney believes reviving the debate will only open old wounds for minority groups.

“There is no way in the world that free speech and freedom of expression is not well exercised in Australia. What 18C does is it pulls people up who are going to go out and racially vilify - that's not free speech, that's insulting, it's unacceptable and it's racist.”

The parliamentary committee is due to report its findings on February 28 next year. 

A history of Section 18C and the Racial Discrimination Act
From complaints about being called a ‘Pom’ to Holocaust denial, the Racial Discrimination Act has had a long and checkered history. While some cases have ruled against racist remarks, many complaints about racial discrimination have also been dismissed by the courts.
The raging debate on Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act
The last two weeks have seen the resurrection of the debate on Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it illegal to offend or insult, humiliate or intimidate a person. The changes, first raised by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014, would make it legal to insult or offend someone based on their race or ethnicity.
Press Council rules out action over Bill Leak's cartoon despite more than 700 complaints
The Australian press Council has decided to take "no further action" against The Australian, after they published a controversial cartoon portraying an Indigenous man with a beer can, not remembering his son's name, despite receiving over 700 complaints about the illustration.
Bill Leak Defends Racist Caricature Bill Leak