SUBJECT/S: Abbott Government’s back down on repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; National Security.
MARIUS BENSON: Mark Dreyfus, the Government changed its mind yesterday on the anti discrimination act, on the changes it was proposing to that act. Has it simply listened to the community and acted as a democratic government should?
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The Government has been forced to stop giving a green light to racism. It’s been forced to stop backing bigots at long last. And it could have listened to the community well before it got into government, because community groups made it very clear that they were opposed to the Liberal and National parties proposed changes to Section 18C.
And this was a signature policy for George Brandis, he was still spruiking the need to repeal 18C right up until the last minute, before the Cabinet and the Prime Minister dumped his policy.
BENSON: Is there a danger in this law though, as it exists and will continue to exist, because there are bigots in the community, in fact maybe everyone has their own particular form of narrowness and bigotry at times. This law requires everyone to pretend in public to be better than they are.
DREYFUS: This law sets a standard for public behaviour in Australia. It’s served Australia very well for nearly 20 years and it strikes a balance, it strikes an appropriate balance between protecting free speech, it protects discussion of government and political matters, it protects artistic endeavour. And we can see that in the decisions which have been made since the law came into effect at the start of 1995.
That’s what we didn’t hear from Tony Abbott or from George Brandis when they were taking about why Section 18C had to be repealed. They never said that within the law as it stands in Section 18D there is a protection of free speech.
BENSON: Just to catch your views on free speech there are some examples of strong speech in the papers today. In your view should it be against the law to call someone a “Jewish bigot”?
DREYFUS: What the law prohibits is an attack which is based on someone’s racial or ethnic origin and within that. As I’ve just said, there’s a protection, a free speech protection which protects people who are engaged in genuine discussion, reasonably and in good faith of government, political matters, academic enquiry, artistic endeavours as well.
BENSON: But regardless of the context, is that acceptable language, “Jewish bigot”?
DREYFUS: I don’t know what the context is and I’d have to see, that it would be acceptable, Marius, but I would have to see the context in which it was used.
BENSON: Another term used, this is in argument between journalists, I won’t get lost in that, another term used is “Likudnik”. It refers to Likud, the party of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
DREYFUS: Well, that’s a piece of political diatribe, presumably, being used by somebody against somebody else. I think we should have robust political speech and we certainly do in this country.
BENSON: Can I ask you about the anti-terror measures that the Government is planning. One of those would see people required to explain why they are going to some parts of the world, maybe a part of the world controlled by the Islamic State in the area of Syria and Iraq that is now held. Does favour that?
DREYFUS: We certainly understand that there is a threat of terrorism in Australia, but equally we think that the Government has a duty to explain and justify any proposed changes to our national security laws.
We’ll look constructively at anything that the Government puts forward. We haven’t seen any detail yet, but the one you’ve just mentioned is what sounds like a proposed reverse onus provision. That’s something that Australian law has always grounded on. It would take, there’s a very heavy onus on the Government, I’d have to say, if they are proposing to introduce a reverse onus provision. They’ll have to justify it.
BENSON: You’re in favour of the presumption of innocence?
DREYFUS: I’m absolutely, as are I think any Australian who cares about our values, who cares about Australia as a free and democratic society subject to the rule of law, has to be concerned about suggestions that the presumption of innocence is to be put to one side.
Suggesting to the thousands and thousands of Australians who have got very legitimate reasons, ranging from visiting family, to humanitarian activities, legitimate reasons for going to places of conflict, might become exposed to being charged with a criminal offence. I think that’s got to ring some alarm bells for people.
BENSON: Mark Dreyfus, thank you very much.
DREYFUS: Thanks Marius.