Turnbull launches inquiry to review ban on racist speech

While critics say ban restricts free speech, supporters say it promotes tolerance

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday launched an inquiry to consider overhauling a controversial ban on racist or offensive speech.

The parliamentary review, to be chaired by Singapore-born Australian MP Ian Goodenough, follows an emotive debate over whether the ban unduly restricts free speech. Critics say any windback could encourage racism.

The ban is contained in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a section which makes it unlawful to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" anyone on the basis of race, colour, nationality or ethnicity.

Conservative MPs and commentators have led the push to abolish or limit the ban, saying it is draconian and hampers free speech. However, religious and ethnic community groups have largely backed the ban as a way to promote tolerance and prevent expressions of racism.

Mr Goodenough, from Mr Turnbull's Liberal Party, said he backed "common sense" changes - a view that he said was based on his experiences as a Singaporean migrant growing up in the state of Western Australia.

He told ABC News yesterday he had received a "fair share of teasing and name-calling", adding: "But I learnt to be resilient and take it in my stride. Insults and offensive comments are occasionally encountered as a part of everyday life and we must learn to deal with them. Resorting to legal action for petty matters should not be our default position."

The inquiry follows a high-profile case in which three university students were accused of racial vilification under Section 18C.

The case dates back to 2013 when the students were asked to leave a computer lab at the Queensland University of Technology after being informed that it was for Aboriginal students only. The students later posted several comments on Facebook criticising the incident. One student asked if the university was "stopping segregation with segregation".

An Aboriginal staff member lodged a case against the students under Section 18C, claiming A$250,000 (S$268,000) in compensation. A federal court judge last week ruled in the students' favour, saying the comments were "mere slights" and not serious enough to justify a successful action.

The inquiry will examine Sections 18C and 18D, a section which says the ban does not apply to artistic works, scientific debate and fair comment made in good faith. It will also examine the complaints process, which is handled by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The opposition Labor Party yesterday accused the ruling coalition of potentially promoting hate speech. Labor leader Bill Shorten said during a party room meeting: "What offensive, humiliating vitriol do they think we need to be encouraging?"

The Greens party's leader, Dr Richard Di Natale, said the ban was crucial to curbing incitement, particularly following the recent resurgence of the anti-immigration MP Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party. "We have some of the most hateful voices, not just in the community but within this Parliament, and here we have a Prime Minister saying we're going to make it easier for you to be racist," he said.

The inquiry is due to report back in February next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull launches inquiry to review ban on racist speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe