Aussie conservatives seek repeal of law against racist speech

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declares victory for the ruling conservatives at a press conference in Sydney on July 10.
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declares victory for the ruling conservatives at a press conference in Sydney on July 10. PHOTO: AFP

Critics say the law curbs free speech, but its supporters underline the need to fight racism

Australia's tight election result has emboldened critics of the nation's anti-racism laws, prompting a bitter debate on whether the federal government should abolish a ban on making  offensive or racist comments.

In the aftermath of the election on July 2, conservative MPs and commentators have urged the ruling Liberal-National coalition to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" on the basis of race, colour, nationality  or ethnicity.

  The section was introduced in 1995 and has been found by the courts to apply only to serious instances of racism. The push to abolish it is being led by a group of right-wing MPs in the Upper House, or Senate, where no party has a majority. The group includes incoming MPs from Ms Pauline Hanson's One Nation party and several independents. These critics say the law prevents people from speaking freely and hampers public debate.

 "It is very important to the country because at the moment a lot of people are afraid to speak up," One Nation's Malcolm Roberts told ABC Television earlier this month.

"You can call me short, you can call me fat... Whatever you want to call me, the only person who decides whether I'm upset is me."

In a population largely made up of migrants, the debate has pitted advocates of free speech against those who emphasise the need to prevent outbreaks of racism and prejudice. 

The law has been strongly backed by minority groups, which say opponents fail to understand the need to combat racism in Australia.

In a population largely made up of migrants, the debate has pitted advocates of free speech against those who emphasise the need to prevent outbreaks of racism and prejudice.

The law has been strongly backed by minority groups, which say opponents fail to understand the need to combat racism in Australia. Leaders of the Chinese, Muslim, Greek, Jewish and Aboriginal communities have all backed the law. 

In a speech in March, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said the law helped to "endorse Australian multiculturalism".

"The Racial Discrimination Act continues to be an important statement about Australian society's commitment to civility and respect," he said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has come under heavy pressure from the conservative wing of his Liberal Party to abolish the section. But he said last week that it was not a priority.

"With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job or... build an extra road," he said.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, a staunch conservative ousted by Mr Turnbull last September, tried to repeal the section after winning the 2013 election. But that sparked a strong public backlash and he eventually backed down, saying he believed it was important to "preserve national unity".

Now a backbencher, Mr Abbott said in a speech on Aug 12 that he still believed Section 18C was a "troubling law". He said he might have been more successful if he had tried to alter rather than abolish it.

"At its worst, it (Section 18C) limits free speech merely to prevent hurt feelings. Perhaps the cause of free speech would have fared better if my government's initial bid had been merely to drop 'offend' and 'insult' while leaving prohibitions on the more serious harms."

Supporters of the law point out that Section 18D of the Act exempts artistic and scientific statements and fair public comment, as long as they are said reasonably and in good faith.

An expert on democracy and free speech, Dr David van Mill from the University of Western Australia, said that Section 18C was limited and applied only to public speech that targeted features of a person's identity.

"It would thus be wrong to claim that free speech carte blanche is under threat," he wrote on The Conversation website.

Dr van Mill said that calls for Australia to allow "unfettered speech" were "dangerous, misguided and extreme". Such a move would mean that Australia would have to allow all speech, including, for instance, child pornography, blackmail and revealing state secrets, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Aussie conservatives seek repeal of law against racist speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe