CANBERRA – Broadcaster Alan Jones' sigh was audible, as was the Prime Minister's phone hang up.
In a testy breakfast radio exchange, Malcolm Turnbull has ruled out, for now, removing race hate speech as an offence saying is government has higher priorities like budget repair.
Free speech advocates, commentators and some conservative senators want to soften or abolish the controversial 18c clause of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) which makes it illegal to commit an act -- in public -- that is reasonably likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of their race or ethnicity.
It's understood there may be several private members bills relating to 18c, including one from Family First senator Bob Day, when parliament returns next week. New Liberal Senator, and former Deputy Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), James Paterson wants changes to 18c and has been quoted as saying the makeup of new Senate would be "very close" to passing such legislation.
Pressed by 2GB host Alan Jones on Thursday to give a "yes" or "no" on supporting changes to 18c as the top of the clock news bulletin was bearing down, Turnbull said changing the laws on racist speech is not on his agenda, for now.
"The answer is no. Not at this stage," the Prime Minister told an exasperated Jones."Because we have higher and more urgent budget repair priorities."
Turnbull: "Strong" case for changes to section 18c but it's not on the agenda "No, not at this stage" #auspol— Michael Koziol (@michaelkoziol) August 24, 2016
Jones loudly sighed over the Prime Minister's answer. He had highlighted a current Federal Court case concerning two Queensland University of Technology students and a Facebook post about Indigenous-only study areas.
Turnbull has supported changes to Section 18c of the RDA in the past and Thursday appeared sympathetic.
"There has been a strong argument over a long period of time to remove the words "insult" and "offend" from 18c," Turnbull said.
"As you know when Tony was Prime Minister he proposed wider changes and then decided, it was his decision to take the matter off the agenda."
Abbott had outraged free speech advocates, including conservative commentator Andrew Bolt and the IPA by insisting in 2014 the proposal was "off the table - it is gone. It's disappeared."
Now on the backbench, Abbott has indicated his government should have pursued less ambitious reforms to the RDA.