Any hopes the government had that its controversial proposal to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act would disappear following its inevitable Senate defeat have been dashed.
Moments after the Senate voted late Thursday night to veto any changes to the wording of the Act, the Institute of Public Affairs, the principal agitator within the conservative movement which drove the push, said the issue would not go away and Malcolm Turnbull must champion it all the way to the next election.
“The Coalition government must take its commitment to reform section 18C to the next election,” IPA director of policy, Simon Breheny said. “Senators who voted against this bill have failed a test of their commitment to basic human liberty.”
As predicted, the Senate voted to defeat the push to remove the words “insult, offend and humiliate” and replace them with “harass”.
Joining Labor and the Greens to defeat the change, where the Nick Xenophon Team and Jacqui Lambie. The government was supported by One Nation, Derryn Hinch and David Leyonhjelm.
The change was defeated by 31 votes to 28. The Senate was on track to support non-controversial procedural changes to stop vexatious and frivolous complaints being lodged with the Human Rights Commission.
After resisting for months, Malcolm Turnbull agreed to legislate to change the Act after a concerted campaign by conservatives and libertarians.
The move left him exposed to charges of fanning race hate and being beholden to the right. Mr Turnbull argued the changes would strengthen protections and freedom of speech, but the government has made no effort to promote or defend the changes since announcing them.
The Coalition moved quickly, with a one-day Senate inquiry last week and the Senate vote this week. It was anticipated the change would be killed off and that would be the end of the matter.
But the IPA signalled it would continue agitating, meaning the issue is unlikely to go away.
Conservative Liberal defector Cory Bernardi indicated after the vote he would keep agitating for change and said Thursday night’s vote was just “a box-ticking exercise” for the government.
Attorney-General George Brandis called the defeat a “sad day”.
“We all, as citizens of a democracy have an obligation to respect the equal right of every other citizen to hold and express their views,” he said.
“If we do not believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe it at all.”
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