Welcome news that PM Tony Abbott has scrapped moves to water-down Australia’s anti-hate speech laws

The Human Rights Law Centre has welcomed the announcement that the Australian Government has “taken off the table” proposals drafted by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, George Brandis, to weaken Australia’s racial discrimination laws.

HRLC Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, said Federal laws against racial vilification are working well and had strong support in the community.

“It’s great news that the Prime Minister has walked away from plans that would have given the green light to bigotry. Strong and effective laws that protect Australians from racist hate speech are a great asset in combatting the serious harm to individuals and society caused by racial vilification,” said Mr de Kretser.

Recent FOI requests had revealed that 76.5% of respondents to the Government's consultation process had opposed the Government's plans.

Mr de Kretser said the changes proposed by Attorney-General, George Brandis, would have effectively abolished the current Federal legal protections against racial vilification and would have sent an appalling signal about the Government’s views on racial tolerance.

Under the proposed changes, the words “offend, insult and humiliate” would have been deleted from the existing laws. “Vilify” would be inserted but narrowly defined and the existing protection against “intimidation” would also be given a new narrow definition. The existing free speech exemptions for fair comment, fair reporting and artistic and scientific works would have be greatly expanded with a catch-all exemption for “public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter”. Notably, the requirements for “reasonableness” and “good faith” in the exemption would have been removed.

“We welcome the Prime Minister’s decision. Free speech is an extremely important human right and striking an appropriate balance to cater for the diverse needs of our community is an important task,” said Mr de Kretser.

FOI request reveals high community opposition to Government’s moves to weaken protections against racial vilification

The week before the announcement, figures obtained under freedom of information laws by Professor Simon Rice of the Australian National University, for the first time revealed the extent of opposition to the changes in the submissions.

Over 4,000 individual submissions were received and once endorsements of those submissions are accounted for, 76.5% of respondents were opposed to the Governments proposals, with 20.5% supporting the proposals and 3% arguing for a complete repeal.

“These figures provide further confirmation of the deep community opposition to the changes,” said Professor Rice, “I’m glad to have been able to add some transparency to this consultation process.”

 “The proposed changes would have given a green light to racism. It’s not surprising that there was such strong opposition to the changes,’ said Mr de Kretser.

Despite numerous calls to publicly release the submissions, as would normally occur in any public consultation, the Government consistently refused to do so.

“It is of course ironic that the Government would keep these submissions regarding free speech a secret. It’s a simple and common process in consultations to ask people to indicate whether they want their submission to remain confidential, yet the Government was seemingly happy to keep the public in dark about community views on the topic,” said Mr de Kretser.

The HRLC and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law both compiled lists of some of the publicly available submissions on the changes which can be accessed here: http://hrlc.org.au/proposed-changes-to-racial-vilification-laws-key-submissions/

In April, a Fairfax Nielsen poll found that 88 per cent of respondents believed it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone on the grounds of race. The Challenging Racism Project also confirmed strong community support for the existing laws.

Community campaign

The HRLC played a vital role in the campaign against the controversial proposals from the Attorney-General. In addition to helping increase understanding of the existing laws and the proposed changes by creating various resources, the HRLC helped mobilise leading community, Indigenous, ethnic and human rights organisations against the changes by coordinating two joint statements endorsed by over 120 organisations.

The HRLC’s prominent advocacy role in the media highlighting the need for strong and effective protectins against racial vilification, was complemented by a number of appearences at packed community forums explaining how proposed changes would undermine the fight against racism and remove important legal protections.

The HRLC was never opposed to a genuine review of the laws to examine how they were working and to look at possible improvements. However, the HRLC was deeply opposed to this review which effectively sought to abolish Federal racial vilification protections at the same time as the Attorney-General astonishingly tried to claim the changes were the strongest protections against racism in any Federal law

The positive outcome highlights what can be achieved through effective collaboration, education, capacity building and human rights action.