POLITICS

Federal Government Versus Human Rights Commission, Round 2

Turnbull lashes out over the statutory body's handling of rate hate cases.

07/11/2016 9:56 AM AEDT | Updated 07/11/2016 9:58 AM AEDT
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Alex Ellinghausen, Fairfax
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the Human Rights Commission has done a greet deal of harm to its reputation.

CANBERRA – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has attacked the Human Rights Commission for its handling of "race hate" complaints, accusing it of "undermining respect" for Australia's Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).

After previously insisting it was not a priority, Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed federal Cabinet will on Monday consider growing calls from his ministers and backbench for possible changes to section 18c of the RDA over concern for free speech, in particular the removal or watering down of the words "insult" and "offend".

Now, in a continuation of Abbott Government attacks on the Human Rights Commission, Turnbull has strongly criticised the statutory body's handling of complaints under 18c of the RDA after a case against three Queensland students was thrown out on Friday by a Federal Circuit Court judge.

What is 18c?
Section 18c of Australia's racial discrimination act (RDA) makes it illegal to commit an act that is reasonably likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of their race or ethnicity.

In his first task as Australia's first law officer, Attorney-General George Brandis proposed early in 2014 to remove a section that made it illegal to "hurt the feelings of others."

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott outraged free speech advocates, including conservative commentator Andrew Bolt and the Institute of Public Affairs by insisting the proposal was "off the table - it is gone. It's disappeared."

In August, Malcolm Turnbull ruled out removing race hate speech as an offence saying is government has higher priorities like budget repair.

The long drawn out "race hate" test case, involving three QUT students who complained on Facebook about one student's removal from a computer lab reserved for Indigenous students, was found by the judge to have "no reasonable prospect of success."

The Prime Minister has told ABC radio that the Commission must "urgently review" the way in which it manages "race hate" cases.

"I think the Human Rights Commission has done a great deal of harm to its credibility by bringing the case against the Queensland students," Turnbull told ABC radio.

"To have a case like that which will have involved the expenditure of considerable Commonwealth money, taxpayers' money, considerable money on behalf of the students, imposed enormous stress on them, and have it chucked out, struck out as having no reasonable prospects of success.

"What the court was saying, what the judge was saying to the Human Rights Commission is, 'You've been wasting the court's time. You've been wasting government money'."

Turnbull said the body should "soberly and carefully reflect on whether, in their conduct of the administration of the Act, they have been undermining respect for it".

A significant number of Coalition MPs, including Ministers, want the words "insult" and "offend" removed from Section 18c.

Cabinet will Monday consider the suggestion by West Australia Liberal Senator Dean Smith that the matter be referred to federal parliament's Human Rights Committee.

Turnbull said there was "considerable merit' in formally examining the debate, which he said was a balance between freedom of speech and the "mutual respect that underpins our strong multicultural society".

"I have sympathy for this argument ... there is a view that the test, the bar that is set is too low," he said.

"Proscribing conduct which insults and offends is too much of a restriction on free speech."

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