Speech on report by Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on Section 18C

Parliament House, Canberra

Mr DREYFUS (Isaacs—Deputy Manager of Opposition Business) (12:42):  For over 20 years, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has protected our community against racial hate speech, making it unlawful for a person to insult, humiliate, intimidate or offend someone because of their race or ethnic background.

Section 18C's sister provision, section 18D, contains extensive provisions for freedom of speech. Labor has fought to keep section 18C on our statute books against continued assault by those who would, it seems, wish to give a green light to racist hate speech in our community. Labor is very proud that a Labor government—in particular, Attorney-General Michael Lavarch in the Keating government—legislated to fulfil international obligations that Australia has had for many years and to put this protection against racist hate speech on our statute books.

What we now have in the report tabled in this parliament yesterday by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is a very, very clear consensus reached that there should not be any change to sections 18C and 18D. The human rights committee of this parliament has made a number of recommendations that suggest changes to procedure, and they have made a number of recommendations suggesting ways in which there might be better education of the Australian community against the evils of racist speech, but they have not recommended changes to section 18C and section 18D.

That is a victory for those of us in this community who value a tolerant, respectful and accepting society. It is a victory against those who think that the greatest priority for an Australian government should be legislating to give a green light to racist hate speech in our country.

Sadly, this Liberal government includes a number of members who are in that group of people who think that it should be a priority for the government to legislate to give a green light to racist hate speech in our country. For more than six years now, we have had right-wing groups and right-wing members of the Liberal Party of Australia agitating for repeal of section 18C, or at least for a substantial weakening of this protection against racist hate speech. It is hard to understand the devotion of the Right to the weakening of this protection. It would seem, at times, that they want to change the law to give effect to something that was put by the Attorney-General, George Brandis, in the Senate when he said sneeringly to former senator Nova Peris:

People do have a right to be bigots, you know.

Well, not in the Australia that we would wish Australia to be, not in the Australia that we would wish the legal system to reflect—not in our Australia. We want a legal system that draws a clear line, that turns the face of our community against racist hate speech, and that pays attention to the concerns of those who are affected by racist hate speech.

The only way in which these right-wing members of the Liberal Party can possibly stand up and make the kind of ridiculous assertions that they are making—clothing it under the guise of a defence of free speech, if you please—is to ignore the repeated evidence that has been given not just to this most recent inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights but to repeated inquiries and at repeated public rallies, at repeated public demonstrations of support and at public meetings designed to make sure that we resist this push from the right wing in the Liberal Party and the fringe right-wingers who are pushing this view—fringe right-wingers like the Institute of Public Affairs. The only way that these right-wingers can push their cause is by ignoring entirely the effect of racist hate speech on ethnic communities and individuals in our society. They are willing to turn a deaf ear to people I have heard in the Indigenous communities of Australia who say things like, 'Racist speech makes us sick.' That is the position: racist speech makes us sick. So listen up, you people in the Liberal Party who are still trying to repeal section 18C or still putting forward ridiculous suggestions as to how it should be changed.

To the rest of the community of Australia I say: do not listen to the suggestion that is still being trailed by some of these right-wingers that this committee report leaves open the possibility of amendment of section 18C. All this report did was to state some possibilities. Those possibilities were all well known before the committee embarked on its inquiry; they are not more known because they have been repeated in some text in a committee report from this parliament. No, the significance of this report—and I say it clearly—is that it does not recommend any change to section 18C or section 18D. Instead, what it does—and all of the recommendations of the committee concern this—is make suggestions for changes to the complaints process and for better educating the community about the dangers of bigotry. Not one of the recommendations recommends a change to the law itself.

The committee's proposals for change to the procedure for dealing with complaints—that is, the procedures used by the Australian Human Rights Commission—are all recommendations that the Labor Party will carefully consider. I note that many of the committee's recommendations for changes to process are, in fact, recommendations that were put forward by the Australian Human Rights Commission itself. It is to be noted that the member for Banks, a member of this government, supports the committee's recommendations to improve the commission's processes, but he is strongly opposed to moves to change the substantive law.

The member for Banks, earlier today, said: 'It is not the case that simply because you have vexatious claims under a law you get rid of the entire law.' He went on to say, 'There are obviously many aspects of law where vexatious claims are made, and the appropriate way of dealing with that is to address those process issues.' I agree with the member for Banks.

The vast majority of complaints that are made under section 18C to the Human Rights Commission are handled efficiently and effectively. There are not very many of them, in any given year, in the more than 20 years in which the commission has been receiving complaints under section 18C. About 100 of the 2½ thousand formal complaints that are received by the Australian Human Rights Commission, under the other acts of parliament as well that it administers, are section 18C complaints. The overwhelming majority of them are dealt with according to evidence given to the committee by the President of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, in around four months. There have been a handful of problematic cases in the 20 years that this law has been in operation, and I am confident that the problems that have been identified in these cases can be appropriately addressed by the improvements to the commission's complaint-handling processes.

There is an absurdity about the way in which these right-wing attackers of section 18C seek to make their case by referring to complaints that were dismissed. It is a nonsense to suggest that by looking at a complaint about conduct that does not contravene section 18C, somehow, it warrants a repeal of the section itself. It is like saying that because someone had a defamation case dismissed—or someone had a personal injury case dismissed or someone had any other kind of litigation dismissed—as vexatious, in some way, the law under which they sought to bring that case should itself be changed. You only have to state it properly to see the absurdity of the position that has been adopted by these attackers of 18C.

Let us be clear again: the committee has not recommended any change to section 18C or to section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act, the existing protection of free speech. The committee has not come out in support of what Senator Brandis infamously declared as a 'right to be bigots'. Rather, this committee has made—very wisely—no recommendation to change 18C or 18D, and it is to be commended for arriving at that consensus position. I call on the Prime Minister to end this ridiculous debate now and make it clear that it is at an end. There will be no change to section 18C.