CANBERRA -- Race hate laws, and whether they should be changed, is an escalating issue. And it's not just an issue for those debating it in Canberra; it could have very real implications for the ordinary public.
The Government is considering tinkering with the Racial Discrimination Act, specifically its most divisive subsection, 18c. And specifically the two words at the centre of the argument: "insult" and "offend".
It's 18c, and these words, that led to Andrew Bolt being found guilty of breaching the Act, intended to protect Australians from race hate speech. And it's 18c and those words that conservative politicians on the vanguard of the debate want to change -- because they believe it sets the standard for racial discrimination too low.
"If law can be used as a weapon against cartoonists with big newspapers, they can be used to target any Australian," Liberal MP Tim Wilson told The Huffington Post Australia.
Wilson, the former former Human Rights Commissioner, Institute of Public Affairs policy director and now Member for Goldstein, is one of the key Coalition Government advocates for repealing laws covering race hate speech.
Wilson is citing a now infamous Bill Leak cartoon published in The Australian as the government announces a parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech.
— Political Alert (@political_alert) November 8, 2016
There's also the case of three QUT students using Facebook to register displeasure after one was ejected from an Indigenous computer lab.
It was the latest test of Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), thrown out of the Federal Circuit Court last week, firing up advocates to urge the government to look at the Act again.
"This issue goes to the heart of people's sense of security on society," Wilson told The Huffington Post Australia. "It goes to the heart of making sure that people are protected from harassment and intimidation.
"Everybody has an issue in getting this law right, so everyone has an equal investment in society."
Free speech advocates, and there are quite a few in the Coalition, want to remove or relax section 18c of the RDA which makes it illegal to "hurt the feelings of others". It has has become the paramount issue for such advocates.
It is understood there are not enough votes to change 18c in parliament, but the numbers are growing.
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.
Labor Leader Bill Shorten said Turnbull has been dragged kicking and screaming by the right of the Coalition to have to deal with 18c and he insists it is a fringe issue.
"How many new jobs were created by amending 18c?" he put to reporters in Canberra.
Bill Shorten asks the PM about his change of heart on 18C. "Prime minister, what insults do you want people to be allowed to say?"
— Samantha Maiden (@samanthamaiden) November 8, 2016
"How will it help protect our AAA credit rating by amending 18c? How many more teachers or nurses or apprentices will be created by reforming or changing 18c?"
"If Malcolm Turnbull has to engage in a debate to keep his backbench happy or conservative commentators who are disappointed in the Turnbull Government, that is his problem, it is not mine."
The Human Rights Commission – the statutory body which administers the RDA -– points out that Section 18d covers exemptions to 18c.
What is 18d?
Section 18d of the Racial Discrimination Act contains exemptions which protect freedom of speech. These ensure that artistic works, scientific debate and fair comment on matters of public interest are exempt from section 18c, providing they are said or done reasonably and in good faith.
Tim Wilson "resolutely" does not rate 18d.
"18d sets a test that things should be reasonable and in good faith. It is not a normal standard to say that people's conduct has to be reasonable and secondly why do people have to say things that are in good faith," he told HuffPost Australia.
"What 18c does is make expressions unlawful and then you have to establish the case about you meeting a test of 18d."
"You should never have to front up to a government tribunal just to explain yourself."
The Coalition's to and fro on 18c
- An Abbott Government promise to be kept to conservative figure Andrew Bolt;
- Defended by the Attorney-General as allowing people to have "a right to be bigots";
- Dropped when Tony Abbott took advice to not upset multicultural communities;
- In August, Malcolm Turnbull insisted 18c changes were not a priority;
- Turnbull then attacks the Human Rights Commission over 18c complaints;
Australia's race hate laws, and the debate over whether changes are needed, have reignited the stoush between the Coalition and the Human Rights Commission, in particular the Commission's President Gillian Triggs.
The Commission can dismiss complaints that are trivial, vexatious and lacking in substance and it has been criticised for its pursuit of matters which infringe on free speech.
Triggs told ABC's 730 program on Monday that the Turnbull Government misunderstands the Commission's role.
"Our role is not a court. We are there to, in effect, stop matters going to the court," she told 730 host Leigh Sales.
"We're not there to second guess what a court will do. We're there because we must under our statute consider the complaint. We investigate it and try to conciliate it."
No surprises here. Eric Abetz welcomes an inquiry into sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. pic.twitter.com/K91fsXDR6p
— Henry Belot (@Henry_Belot) November 8, 2016
That's explanation is not washing with some government types and parts of the media which already have an issue with Triggs and the Commission.
The Prime Minister got his hands dirty on Monday, saying the Commission had "done a great deal of harm to its credibility" and urged it to "urgently review" the way in which it manages "race hate" cases.
Government frontbencher Matt Canavan is "dismayed" that someone could be "hauled before a tribunal for telling a joke."
"It is not the Australia I grew up in," he told reporters in Canberra.
"We tend to be a culture that can have a joke. Have a laugh. Can take the 'mickey' out of people, but we are going to lose that part of our culture."
But Labor MP and counter terrorism expert, Anne Aly, does not think race hate laws need change.
"18c is there to protect all Australians and 18d is there to protect free speech," she told reporters.
"18c and 18d have served Australians well for many years now, and this latest backflip by the Prime Minister is just another in the series of backflips that have left Australia wondering just exactly who it is that's governing this country."