POLITICS

The Coalition To Fight About Race Hate Words On Harmony Day

Protections could be watered down on day dedicated to eliminating racial discrimination.

20/03/2017 10:48 PM AEDT | Updated 21/03/2017 8:29 AM AEDT
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Changes to the Racial Discrimination Act has been a point of division for the Coalition.

The Turnbull Government has a timely internal fight on its hands on Harmony Day, with proposal to water down Australia's race hate laws expected to be presented to the Government's joint party room on Tuesday.

The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) and its most divisive subsection, 18c, which makes it illegal to "insult" and "offend" other Australians based on race, have been a force of division within the Coalition government. The continued push from a section of the Liberal Party to water down Australia's race hate laws has been met with derision from the Labor Opposition and frustration by representatives of the Nationals pushing to return the agenda to issues they say matter to punters.

It also comes despite Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's repeated statements that changes to section 18c are not on his government's agenda.

And in a case of extraordinary timing, today is not just Harmony Day but the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

But now, just two months out from the federal budget, it is understood the Government's senior ranks are hoping to unite Coalition members over the RDA by removing the words "offend," "insult" and "humiliate" and replace them with the word "harass".

The proposal, discussed in Cabinet on Monday, comes in light of a RDA review from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.

While Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has been urging colleagues to stop talking about 18c, he's playing down government divisions.

"18c, there has been a committee, it made a report, we read the report. No doubt something will be brought to the joint party room in due course, but all these reports about a massive split, that is all rubbish," he told the ABC's Lateline.

The parliamentary committee consists of 13 MPs and senators who have been examining freedom of speech in Australia since late last year, including whether the Racial Discrimination Act "imposes unreasonable restrictions upon freedom of speech, and in particular whether, and if so how, [sections] 18C and 18D should be reformed."

"Wait until tomorrow, see what happens. I think we have already seen a report, you have everything from the Law Society, even Gillian Triggs said that there were concerns around certain issues," he said.

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.

Assistant Minister Craig Laundy does not want changes to 18c.

"I am extremely comfortable with the laws as it sits today," he told ABC radio on Tuesday.

In February, Fairfax Media reported the committee chose to recommend the words "offend, insult and humiliate" be removed from section 18C of the Act and replaced with the word "harass", while the word "intimidate" would be left in place and the word "vilify" would not be added.

While support for the proposed changes is gaining momentum within the Turnbull Government, supporting legislation will have trouble passing the Senate with influential senator Nick Xenophon indicating he will not support the amendments.

"I have discussed this overnight with my colleagues .. and I think it is quite problematic to change the definition," he told ABC radio on Tuesday.

"I think we need to look at the process and see how that sits after 12 to 18 months."

The three votes of the Nick Xenophon Team leave the government little space for change when combined with Labor's 26 votes and the Greens' nine, which form a 38-vote majority in the 76-seat Senate.

The proposed changes come after it was revealed in the report that just 71 complaints under 18c were made in the last year -- just over one per week.

Despite an enormous campaign prior to the report, the committee was slammed by conservative MPs in February for only suggesting minor changes to the RDA.

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