CANBERRA – The continued Liberal push to water down Australia's race hate laws has been met with frustration from its Coalition partners, with the Nationals pushing to return the agenda to issues they say matter to punters.
With a serious roll of the eyes at the mention of the issue on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce urged his colleagues to stop talking about possible changes to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), a law intended to protect Australians from race hate speech.
The Nationals are now pleading with the Government to talk about basically anything else.
A joint parliamentary committee is poised on Tuesday to recommend a series of possible changes to a controversial subsection 18c of the RDA, which makes it illegal to "insult" and "offend" other Australians based on race.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will have the call on what to do with the recommendations, due out soon, from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights' review of the RDA.
It is expected to be a fresh political bun fight amid the Government's worst ever Newspoll result on Monday, the Government struggling to stay on message, and the resurgence of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party.
Nationals MP Damian Drum slammed his fellow politicians as on the nose and out of touch, telling reporters in Canberra that voters have lost interest.
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.
"They are sick of politicians putting their snouts in the trough," he exclaimed.
"To come to Canberra and to find out people want to talk about 18c... I think we should be grateful we live in this country where we have ... totally this freedom of expression, freedom of speech.
"It is fantastic and it should be protected, but I think we have a reasonable balance right now."
After a concerted, long-term campaign by a group of Liberal MPs and conservative commentators to stop a "stifling" of free speech, changes to the controversial subsection 18c appear close.
Proponents of change say it is a freedom of speech issue, while Labor's Linda Burney predicts a loosening up of the Act's words will unleash racism.
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;
Fairfax Media reported the joint committee will 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.
The issue has divided the Liberal party room and there is likely to be unhappiness from one faction regardless of what the prime minister decides to do with RDA. And Turnbull could always choose to just leave it as is.
But Barnaby Joyce thinks 18c is a niche issue getting the government off track and voters are turning off.
"They're talking about income. They're talking about making sure they get treated fairly," he told reporters in Canberra.
"But I'll be quite frank, they do not invite me into their shed to look around their packing shed and then say, 'Barney, sit down in this chair, I want to talk to you about the Racial Discrimination Act'."
And he is backed by Drum, the former coach of Fremantle, who said 18c is "just not on my radar".
"People that are coming in through my doors are worried about the Water Act, are worried about the Murray Darling Basin Authority and where the review is going," he said.
"We've got a fantastic country to live in and free speech is... We have free speech."
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