CANBERRA -- The long-awaited parliamentary committee report into freedom of speech in Australia was finally released on Tuesday, recommending... well, not much.
Australia's conservative politicians and commentators have been obsessed with section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act for months now, which makes it an offence to do something which could "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone based on their "race, colour or national or ethnic origin" (for more explanation, see this clear and simple guide). Criticisms of the provision include that it could stifle free speech. The campaign kicked into high gear after the case of Queensland university students who were accused of discrimination by a university staff member after allegedly making comments about an indigenous-only computer lab. That case was eventually thrown out of court, but other cases such as against controversial cartoonist Bill Leak, and a concerted campaign by conservative newspapers and television programs, ensured the 18c issue stayed in the headlines.
Despite the enormous campaign, it was revealed on Tuesday that just 71 complaints under 18c were made in the last year -- just over one per week.
A parliamentary committee of 13 MPs and senators 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." On Tuesday, the report was released in parliament, and to the disappointment of conservatives, there was not an explicit call to reform or abolish 18c.
Instead, the committee merely said it had "received evidence about a number of proposals" and listed a "range of proposals that had the support of at least one member of the committee", the first of which was "no change" to 18c.
In response to criticisms of the Human Rights Commission, the report did recommend that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights "become an oversight committee" of that organisation "with bi-annual meetings in public session to discuss the Commission's activities" including the handling of complaints.
The report also recommended changes to the way the AHRC responds to complaints, possibly in response to criticisms of the way the AHRC and president Gillian Triggs communicated with the young men involved in the QUT case. Also recommended was a "refundable complaint lodgement fee" for complaints to the commission.
The report included several minor changes to how the AHRC operates, but the main takeaway was that no concrete recommendations were made to reform 18c. Conservatives including Cory Bernardi, the former Liberal senator who has now become an independent member of parliament, has been a vocal supporter of changing 18c and was quick to criticise the report.
Liberal senator James Paterson almost immediately countered Bernardi's claims on Twitter, saying the report did outline recommendations on 18c -- but as we have outlined above, the recommendations Paterson points to are part of a long shopping list of possible changes which "had the support of at least one member of the committee". The list includes both "no change to sections 18C or 18D" and "removing the words 'offend', 'insult' and 'humiliate' from section 18C and replacing them with 'harass'."
Labor welcomed the findings of the report, saying no changes were needed to 18c.
"Today the Committee set up to water down race hate speech has found no basis to recommend any changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The report is a victory for common sense and for ethnic communities across Australia who made their voices heard during the committee process," said Tony Burke, Mark Dreyfus and Graham Perrett in a statement.
"If Prime Minister Turnbull proceeds with changes to the law, it will be entirely his choice to do so."
"If Mr Turnbull had any backbone at all, he would use the publication of this report to kill off attempts to water down 18C and the vital protections it provides."
The Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank which has spearheaded the opposition to 18c, also quickly weighed in. The IPA called the report "disappointing"
Liberal MP and committee chair Ian Goodenough went on Sky News soon after to say that he personally wanted to see 18c reformed.
This won't be going away anytime soon.
For the full report, click here.