Comments in the Senate by the Attorney-General George Brandis that Australians have “a right to be bigots” have prompted an angry reaction from some quarters as the Federal Government prepares to roll back provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act that outlaw speech which offends people.
Much of the commentary since has fixated on Brandis’ comment about the right to be bigots, but he also gave one of the best indications so far in his answer of how the Government plans to change the law – including a hint that the laws against incitement to racial hatred will be strengthened.
Answering a question from Northern Territory Senator Nova Peris, Brandis said yesterday Australians had a right to be bigoted, but also said that proposed changes to the so-called “Andrew Bolt” laws would also “put the law in a better position to deal with incitement to racial hatred”.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told an audience at the Migration Council award dinner last night that “no one has a right to bigotry and racism has no place in a modern Australia”.
We haven’t seen the legislative changes that the Government is proposing yet, and while Brandis did certainly defend the right of people to say bigoted things, he also gave some hints about how punishments might be changed, and some other changes.
Here’s the transcript from Hansard of the exchange between Peris, Brandis and Labor Senator Penny Wong below:
Senator PERIS: My question is to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. I refer the Attorney-General to his speech to the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation in July 2012, where he said: … if we win the next election and if I’m the Attorney-General in an Abbott Government, one of my first priorities will be to remove … the Racial Discrimination Act, the provisions under which Andrew Bolt was dragged before the courts … Does the Attorney-General still propose to remove 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act?
Senator BRANDIS: I am glad Senator Peris has read my speech to the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation annual conference. I am flattered to think that she follows my speeches so carefully—though, Senator Peris, you omitted a very relevant word from the quotation, and that is the word ‘from’.
It is certainly the intention of the government to remove from the Racial Discrimination Act those provisions that enabled the columnist Andrew Bolt to be taken to the Federal Court merely because he expressed an opinion about a social or political matter.
I will very soon be bringing forward an amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act which will ensure that that can never happen in Australia again—that is, that never again in Australia will we have a situation in which a person may be taken to court for expressing a political opinion.
The problem with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as it is currently worded, is that it goes about the problem of dealing with racial vilification in the wrong way. What it seeks to do is to deal with the problem of racial vilification by political censorship.
There should never be political censorship in this country, Senator Peris. People like Mr Bolt should be free to express any opinion on a social or a cultural or a political question that they wish to express, just as Mr Bolt would respect your right to express your opinions about social or political or cultural issues.
Senator PERIS: Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the Attorney-General confirm he is a personal signatory to the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism; and does the Attorney-General stand by his pledge to legislate effective hate crime legislation, including incitement to hatred offences?
Senator BRANDIS: It might surprise Senator Peris to learn that, at the moment, there is no law of the Commonwealth of Australia that prohibits racial vilification—not one. There is no law of the Commonwealth of Australia that prohibits the incitement to racial hatred—none. When the government deals with this matter, the law will be in a better position to deal with incitement to racial hatred.
Senator PERIS: Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I refer the Attorney-General to comments made by the member for Hasluck, Mr Wyatt, who told Fairfax media:
what I wouldn’t like to see is a regression that allows those who have bigoted viewpoints to vilify any group of people at all
Won’t removing section 18C facilitate vilification by bigots?
Senator BRANDIS: People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country, people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive, insulting or bigoted.
Nevertheless, through you, Mr President, may I point out to Senator Peris that section 18C, in its current form, does not prohibit racial vilification. Section 18C in its—
Opposition senators interjecting
The PRESIDENT: Order, on my left!
Senator Wong interjecting—
Senator BRANDIS: I will take that interjection. People have the right to be—
The PRESIDENT: Senator Brandis, you are entitled to be heard in silence and hence you have been stopped at this moment. Senator Brandis, continue.
Senator BRANDIS: I will take that interjection, Senator Wong.
Senator WONG interjects: ‘Yes, George, you go out there and defend the right to be bigoted.’
Senator BRANDIS: Well, you know, Senator Wong, a lot of the things I have heard you say in this chamber over the years are, to my way of thinking, extraordinarily bigoted and extraordinarily ignorant. But I would defend your right to say things that I consider to be bigoted and ignorant. That is what freedom of speech means.
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