RN Breakfast

Subject/s: Racial Discrimination Act, George Brandis misleading Parliament




FRAN KELLY, HOST: The Federal Parliament’s Human Rights Committee has been given wide terms of reference to review Australia’s race hate laws. It will report early next year on whether the words “insult and offend” should be dropped from Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act on the grounds that they restrict freedom of speech. The political stand-off over 18C comes as a Senate report found that the Attorney-General George Brandis has indeed misled the Parliament over his dealings with the former Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson. Mark Dreyfus is the Shadow Attorney-General. Mark Dreyfus welcome to RN Breakfast.


KELLY: We’ll come to George Brandis in a moment but first to the inquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act. The Prime Minister described this inquiry as being a calm, reasonable discussion to see if any consensus emerges for change. Why would Labor be opposed to that?

DREYFUS: We don’t think there’s a need for an inquiry because we don’t think there’s a need for this law to be reviewed. It’s worked well for over 20 years and Mr Turnbull is not answering the question – what kind of racist hate speech does he want Australians to be able to use that they’re presently prevented from doing so? There’s no explanation being put forward by the right wing of his party, he hasn’t put forward an explanation for why he wants this review. As recently as a month ago he was saying there was no need for change. And Australians…..

KELLY: He said it’s not a priority for the government.

DREYFUS: Right – not a priority and now apparently it is. Australians will be looking on at this and scratching their heads, thinking why is this government spending all this time on something that has in fact contributed to Australia being a successful multicultural country that they now apparently want to change? Why is the government doing all this which won’t help me get a job if I’m unemployed, won’t help my business go better, won’t assist in any way…

KELLY: Well yes but hang on the business of government is making all our laws and all our institutions work properly and if there is concerns that some things can work better it’s worth working on isn’t it, and again maybe you’re out of step with some of the community. Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission told us here on breakfast yesterday – this is the body charged with upholding the Racial Discrimination Act – told us yesterday that perhaps there could be improvement.

DREYFUS: Well she’s looking at strengthening the law, and I don’t think that’s what this fringe group in the Liberal Party, the right wing of the Liberal Party and a fringe group otherwise in Australian society called the Institute of Public Affairs - I don’t think that’s what they want to do. I think what they want to do is weaken the law, and this inquiry is a fig leaf to allow weakening of the law.

KELLY: I just want to play you a bit of Gillian Triggs yesterday. Let’s just have a listen.

GILLIAN TRIGGS, PRESIDENT OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION: As far as 18C is concerned, we’re open to seeing what the inquiry might suggest, whether the language could be clarified and in our view strengthened, that enables us to support the multicultural society that we are.

KELLY: So, Gillian Triggs, as I say again, the President of the Human Rights Commission, saying that if the inquiry finds that language could be clarified or strengthened that could be a good thing. Do you agree with that, if that is the finding?

DREYFUS: I’m making the point Fran that the President of the Human Rights Commission who has been disgracefully attacked by this government for years now is saying that the law needs to be strengthened. That is not what the right wing of the Liberal Party are saying, they want it weakened. They want less restrictions on speech, they want to be able apparently to engage in racist hate speech to a greater degree. So there is a clear clash, there is a clear clash there.

KELLY: Well let me put this specific thing to you because I put it to Gillian Triggs, if insult and offend were replaced with the word vilify, would that be a strengthening? And Gillian Triggs said “I would see that as a strengthening, it could be a very useful thing to do”. Would you accept that kind of change?

DREYFUS: No, because we don’t need to change the current words and there has been a lot of nonsense talked about the way in which the courts have looked at this section. It’s one test, not four. And taking out the words insult and offend would in fact weaken this provision. The courts in the very small number of cases that have come to court out of this section have made it very clear that what we’re dealing with is not mere slights, but serious offensive speech.

KELLY: And true, but have we seen it perhaps be used and abused so that mere slights are somehow getting a hearing? And I note again, a consensus is emerging, even the Australian Israel and Jewish Affairs Council says it’s time to re-examine the law. Not unreasonable to call for a review, it says. And it was opposed to this previously.

DREYFUS: And well, but Colin Rubinstein has been very clear in his public writings that the law doesn’t need to be changed in his opinion. He is one of the people that has made it very clear that it is one test, not four. He is saying, as I understood his comments, that twenty years on into the history of this provision, it might be time to have a review.


DREYFUS: We’re saying it doesn’t need to be changed and we’ll be making our views very clear as this review proceeds.

KELLY: OK. Just finally can I bring you to this rift between the Attorney-General George Brandis and the former Solicitor-General now, Justin Gleeson. The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee released its final report late yesterday. Finding that the A-G misled the Senate, it recommends he should be censured. But really that committee was dominated by Labor and the Greens, it was pretty much predictable. Has anything changed? Will Labor move a censure motion, do you believe you’ve got the support in the Senate for that?

DREYFUS: First of all, we need to get rid of the Legal Services Direction and that is going to be the first thing we do with a motion to disallow. A law that should never have been made by the Attorney-General in the first place, still less should it have been made without consulting the Solicitor-General, the person most affected by it. What a disgraceful episode this has been, and it’s yet further confirmation that George Brandis should be sacked. He’s misled the Senate. And worse than that, he’s now lying about lying because he is pretending that he didn’t mislead the Senate when he claimed to have consulted the Solicitor-General. I would invite anybody in Australia to read the report. Of course there is the predictable dismissing of it by the government but the report speaks for itself. It’s a scathing report. George Brandis should be ashamed that a report like this has been written about his work as Attorney-General. If ever we needed confirmation that he’s not fit for the office, this report is it and Malcolm Turnbull should dismiss him.

KELLY: Mark Dreyfus thank you very much for joining us.

DREYFUS: Thanks very much.