Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act is probably one of the most publicly discussed pieces of Australian legislation this year. This week it is back in the spotlight after Tony Abbott has back pedalled on controversial proposed changes to the act, stating at a press conference, “I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk”.
The legislation was first flung into the public eye when Attorney-General George Brandis stood proudly is the senate and announced, “people do have a right to be bigots you know”. If you’ve been living under a rock the past year and haven’t seen this severe case of foot-in-mouth disease, click here. Earlier this year, Brandis felt it necessary to defend peoples “right” to bigotry and proposed changes to section 18c of The Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it illegal to “offend, insult or humiliate” another person based on their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin".
"...several Liberal Party members have approached the Institute of Public Affairs threatening to leave the party."
As you can imagine there was huge backlash from the Australian community. I spoke to Joseph Caputo, chairman of Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia earlier this year. Mr Caputo said the proposed changes were not only unjustified but detrimental, “we are flabbergasted at the fact that the attorney-general wants to change an act that has ensured that we live in one of the most harmonious and civilized multicultural societies in the world".
You would probably expect that the Australian Human Rights Commissioner would be up in arms over potentially detrimental changes to legislation, which has successfully protected the rights of Australia’s ethnic community for decades. Well, you’d be wrong. In my interview with the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson early this year he was adamant that changes to the act must “be consistent with free speech”. Not too bad an idea on the surface, but Tim Wilson has now come out defending his claims on the ABC and insisting that the current legislation is “dangerous”. He justified his stance by saying that there’s no comparative “section 18c” to combat sexism or homophobia.
Tim Wilson isn’t the only one who’s disappointed by Tony Abbott’s legislative backflip. Apparently, several Liberal Party members have approached the Institute of Public Affairs threatening to leave the party. Unashamedly conservative journalists, Steve Price and Andrew Bolt, have also denounced the Prime Minister’s decision. Price and Bolt used their 2GB radio segment last night to publicly criticize the retention of “section 18c”.
In part I can agree with Bolt and Price, freedom of speech is something we should all cherish, and as a journalist I certainly do. But I for one am happy to give up my so called “right” to bigotry if it means the continued protection of fundamental human decency.