Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. Regarding your plans to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and remove the law against offending, insulting or humiliating a person on the basis of their race, Mr Ken Wyatt told The Sydney Morning Herald last week that his belief that these racial vilification laws should remain is shaped by 10 years of experience in Western Australia's Equal Opportunity Commission tribunal and by witnessing how racial vilification has significant impacts on people in ways that we do not fully appreciate. Given Mr Wyatt's experience, and given the strong views of ethnic communities and of the chairman of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, Mr Warren Mundine, why is the government proceeding with its bid to repeal the law against racial slurs?
Thank you, Senator Wright, for that question. Senator Wright, you do not appear to be aware that there is in fact no Commonwealth law which proscribes racial vilification. Racial vilification is not conduct described by section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. One of the problems with this debate, if I may—through you, Mr President—say so, Senator Wright, is that people make commentary on laws which they have not read. And you have just done that, Senator Wright. It is the view of the government that we can have strong protections of freedom of speech and appropriate laws to protect people from racial vilification; and that the two are not inconsistent objectives. Senator Wright, might I direct you to what I regard as a very wise editorial in this morning's The Australian newspaper, in which the editorial writer makes the point that the problem with public debate in this area in Australia is that it is impossible to have a discussion about race without being accused of being a racist. That is the problem—
Opposition senators interjecting—
So, Senator Wright, these are not inconsistent objectives: to have the best laws protecting Australians from racial vilification, and to have laws at the same time which do not impinge upon the right of citizens to hold and to express opinions without being told what to say, or to think, by government. And that legislation will be introduced before the middle of the year.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In fact, the term 'racial vilification' was a quote from Mr Wyatt—and that leads me to the supplementary question. Did the Prime Minister need to intervene to limit coalition dissent about the repeal of these laws in a dispute between your coalition colleagues in cabinet yesterday, as reported in The Australian today?
Well, Senator Wright, there actually was not a cabinet meeting yesterday but, nevertheless, Australia is having a discussion about the Racial Discrimination Act and there is a variety of points of view. Just as the Australian people are having a discussion about the Racial Discrimination Act, so are members of the coalition parties.
You illustrate the very problem that I pointed to a moment ago, Senator Wright, as if there is something impermissible or dangerous about having a discussion about what is, on anybody's view, a vexed social issue. I tell you what, Senator Wright: when you find a social practice like racism, which does exist in certain quarters of Australian society, political censorship is not the answer.
Thank you, Mr President. Thank you, Senator Brandis, for your answer. My further supplementary question then is: why are you and the Prime Minister ignoring the voices of reason both inside and outside your party and pushing ahead with a law that licenses the public humiliation of people because of their race—an amendment that should perhaps be called the 'protection of Andrew Bolt' bill?
Well, Senator Wright, all voices in the coalition parties are voices of reason. But, Senator Wright, let me tell you something: reasonable people, decent people, can disagree in good faith and still be reasonable people.
Senator Cameron! I remind honourable senators that this is completely disorderly. Senator Ronaldson and Senator Cameron! Senator Bernardi, Senator Wright is entitled to hear the answer in silence without you people interrupting Senator Brandis. Senator Cameron! Senator Carr!
I think we see, Mr President, in Senator Wright's supplementary question, the very problem here is that there is a view amongst some, but not among us, that only one point of view or one set of opinions ought to be allowed to be expressed and, if you dissent from that set of opinions, there is something wrong with you—that you are a bad person or a wicked person or a racist. Let me tell you something else, Senator Wright: Mr Andrew Bolt has just as much right to his point of view as you, Senator Wright, have to yours.
Honourable senators interjecting—