The proposal to water down section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act was defeated in the Senate late Thursday night, and the reaction from those celebrating and criticising the outcome has been fierce.
The Government had hoped to change 18c of the RDA, which makes it an offence to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone based on their race, nationality or ethnicity. Malcolm Turnbull had proposed to replace "offend, insult, humiliate" with "harass", which had been met with furious opposition from Labor, the Greens and the multicultural community at large. The argument had been put that the changes were tacit approval from the Government to humiliate someone based on their background.
The 18c debate has been raging in the political spotlight since 2013, under the Abbott administration, sparked by high-profile suits under the provision including university students in Queensland who were accused of vilifying an administration officer after being asked to leave an Indigenous-only computer lab, and controversial cartoonist, the late Bill Leak's depiction of an Indigenous father and son. The 18c changes were fast-tracked into parliament after Leak's death, but on Thursday, the Senate voted 31-28 to block the changes. Seventeen senators were not present for the vote.
Many were thrilled, including Australia's race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who had been criticised by conservative politicians and media outlets for his involvement in 18c cases.
Welcome news that the Racial Discrimination Act remains intact, following tonight's Senate sitting #18C— Tim Soutphommasane (@timsout) March 30, 2017
In this debate about the RDA, mainstream Australia has sent a clear message that racism is unacceptable. Let's not encourage any racism #18C— Tim Soutphommasane (@timsout) March 30, 2017
Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy, an Indigenous woman, voted against the changes last night and called it a "vote for decency".
Linda Burney, a fellow Indigenous woman and Labor MP, echoed the sentiment.
Other prominent multicultural Australians also welcomed the news that the 18c changes would not be going through:
I need days like today where those who are meant to lead us find the courage & decency to do what is right not what's easy. Thank you. #18C— Kon Karapanagiotidis (@Kon__K) March 30, 2017
But while many praised Labor, the Greens and the clutch of crossbenchers who opposed the changes, others were bitterly disappointed and angry at the 18c changes failing. The Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank which had championed the 18c changes, was quick to point the finger online.
Government frontbencher George Brandis called it "a sad day" for Australia. This, of course, came after he detailed all the times he was offended by people calling him a "white man".
The Government's other big 18c reform advocates James Paterson and Cory Bernardi also expressed their disappointment. One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, who voted for the changes, also criticised the news.
The changes to 18c are understood to remain Government policy, despite the defeat, so we may not have seen the last of the push to change the RDA. The Senate is also still considering amendments to how 18c disputes are resolved and the role of the Human Rights Commission in such matters, which may change how 18c cases are treated in a legal sense. But for now, 18c will remain in its current form.
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