Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Racial Discrimination Act 1975

3:23 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) to questions without notice asked by Senators Singh and Peris today relating to proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

It has been made clear today that the Attorney-General is more interested in defending the rights of those he refers to as 'bigots' than in defending the rights of minorities. In order to protect what Senator Brandis described in this place as the fundamental right to be a bigot he has released plans to narrow protections under the Racial Discrimination Act and then exempt almost everyone from this law. What is the point of having a law if you are then going to have umpteen exemptions from it? That just outlines the dishonesty that is being put forward in this draft exposure that Senator Brandis provided to the public yesterday.

By the Attorney-General's own admission vilification and hate speech should never be a feature of intellectual debate. So, if that is the case, why does the Abbott government want to introduce such broad exemptions to the law? Under these exemptions even people vilifying ethnic and racial groups in bad faith are protected as long as they can claim it was related to any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter. It is difficult, within that huge list, to think of any public statement that would not be covered by those exemptions, which shows the dishonesty in the proposed changes that Senator Brandis has put forward.

Let us think about what the changes might actually mean. They will mean comments on an online blog or article. They would include a sign threatening a Jewish group at a neo-Nazi rally against immigration. It is hard to imagine any conduct that falls outside these exemptions, which is an observation that was made by Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs who clearly said:

The new exemption makes clear the fundamental importance of free discussion on any matter of public interest, no matter how extreme that discussion is.

Is that really the kind of Australian society we want to live in? What is the point of having Senator Brandis bringing forward these changes of freedom of speech at any cost, bringing forward changes that he claims put forward laws for racial vilification and hate speech, but then exempts just about every kind of activity from them?

Let us take the case of Fredrick Toben—which is a case very familiar, I am sure, to Senator Brandis—who has been found time and time again to have unlawfully produced and published material that denies the Holocaust. He has accused Jews of exaggerating the scale of the murder of Jewish people during World War II and he has dismissed people, who were offended by or disagreed with such outrageous claims, as being of limited intelligence. Is this the kind of display of racial vilification that we want to allow in our community without any recourse? Because, under that huge list that Senator Brandis outlined in section 4, it would be allowed. This is absolutely absurd and is not supported by some 150 community and ethnic groups across the country—some of which Senator Brandis claims he has met but which, clearly, he has also chosen to ignore.

We have been enlightened today by the way Senator Brandis has appeased the IPA. Through his cups of tea and through the IPA's briefing to the coalition it has been made very clear that the IPA are very happy with these proposed changes, as will be Andrew Bolt, because they go very much to the heart of doing exactly what the IPA, I am sure, briefed the coalition on. People in positions of privilege—people in positions of power—like Andrew Bolt have a platform to be racist. They are public commentators. They are journalists. It is not a level playing field. The victims, though, of racial abuses do not have that position of privilege or power— (Time expired)

3:28 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

In her contribution Senator Singh demonstrates, as occurred all through question time today when Senator Brandis was answering questions in relation to the exposure draft of the amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, that the opposition is not even prepared to listen. We have put in place a process, and at least Senator Singh did acknowledge that Senator Brandis's answers during question time were that he has had extensive—in fact I think the term he used was 'exhaustive'—consultation with minority groups throughout the development of the exposure draft.

It is important to note that this is part of a process. Senator Brandis has also said that he wants to have a conversation with the Australian community about the shape of these laws, which is why they have been released as an exposure draft—so that the community and members of parliament can comment on the exposure draft that has been released. Rather than just howling from the sidelines and spending all of question time interjecting and screaming at Senator Brandis across the chamber, it might be very useful if those members opposite—who obviously do not want to listen to any opinion other than their own—were to engage with the process.

Senator Brandis has released an exposure draft of this legislation for public comment—for the community to engage, for the community to comment—prior to bringing a final piece of legislation to the parliament. I think that is good process. In fact members of our party who had expressed concern—as part of the public commentary about our proposals to modify the act that was taking place prior to this process—have expressed their appreciation since Senator Brandis brought the exposure draft to the party room. They appreciate that it gives them the opportunity to participate in the public debate and to consult with their communities with that exposure draft in their hand.

But the Labor Party just do not want to listen. They are not interested in what Senator Brandis has to say.

Photo of Mehmet TillemMehmet Tillem (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You're right.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

'You're right,' says Senator Tillem. You should be ashamed of that. They are just demonstrating their intolerance. It is surprising how many people who claim to be tolerant show the least tolerance when it comes to public debate.

Photo of Mehmet TillemMehmet Tillem (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's disingenuous.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

They try to howl people down, as Senator Tillem is trying to do at the moment. They try to howl people down. They are not prepared to listen to other perspectives in the debate.

Senator Dastyari interjecting

Senator Tillem interjecting

And the chorus starts. They are not interested in what anyone else has to say. They are the ones who know best. They know better than anyone else. They are not tolerant of anyone else's opinion. It is interesting that in this debate, as Senator Brandis said a couple of days ago—

Photo of Mehmet TillemMehmet Tillem (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am not interested in bigotry. I am not interested in racism.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take your interjection, Senator Tillem, and I will put on the record that neither am I—and I do not think any member on this side of the chamber is.

What Senator Brandis said, Senator Tillem, was actually quite true. People have the right to be what they want to be.

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Do people have the right to be bigots?

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

They do, Senator. They do have the right to be what they want to be—and the community has the right, and should have the right, to decry that. And they should decry that. I am happy to condemn that sort of speech as much as anyone on that side of the chamber. But we are about providing the opportunity for people to speak freely. That is an important part of any community. It is not up to us to tell people what to think or what to say. That is what the Labor Party seek to do. They seek to control what people might want to be, want to think or want to say. You cannot do that. Yes, put parameters around it—which is what the draft seeks to do.

Importantly, however, the exposure draft gives the community the opportunity to be part of the discussion. As I have said, members of my party who have had concerns about where this might go have expressed their appreciation of the process that Senator Brandis has put in place. (Time expired)

3:33 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to applaud Senator Colbeck's statements about the behaviour in this place and I am looking forward to hearing silence from the other side of the chamber during debates from now on.

One of the problems with having a consultation is that you may hear things you do not want to hear. A second problem is that it is particularly difficult to consult when you have already gone out publicly and committed yourself to making the change—and not just committed yourself to making the change but celebrated the fact that, in the opinion of the decision maker, that change will permit behaviours that many people are quite concerned about.

We now have a process in place and I am pleased that we also now have an exposure draft. That will encourage more people to come forward to put their views. The exposure draft in itself raises some issues, however. Senator Singh has already pointed out that the definitions in the exposure draft are very narrow and that the parameters for what constitutes a breach have been considerably tightened. That is a major concern. The proposal has very much reduced the range of behaviours considered to be inappropriate under the vilification process.

The implication of this proposal is that our community thinks it would be completely okay for words and actions to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate'. Those are the current words in the legislation. They are the current words the minister has committed to changing. That is clearly on the record. I am sure that there will be a range of organisations, community groups and individuals who will take up the opportunity through the consultation process to remind the minister, the department and the government that we live in a society which has, for many years, operated with the understanding that words or actions that humiliate, insult, intimidate or offend are not appropriate.

On one side of the argument you have an acceptance that such behaviour is not something that makes people feel safe or secure. It is not something that allows them to feel as though they are respected in our community. After all, that is the intent of the legislation—to ensure that every person in our community is safe, is secure and is respected. On one side you have that. On the other side there is an absolute commitment to free speech.

I think this is an important opportunity for us to weigh up, as a community, what we want Australia to be like. So far, I am pleased to say, everybody in this debate appears to be falling over themselves to openly commit that they are completely opposed to racism in our community. That is a good thing. It has given us a chance to reaffirm that. But the second point is: where in our community and where in each of us individually do we see the balance between our right to free speech—to say whatever we want to say about whomever we want—and the absolute, intrinsic right of people to feel safe, respected and secure?

One of the clear intents of the current legislation is to raise awareness in our wider community and to show everybody in our country and internationally that we have a society that values human beings and that human beings cannot be discriminated against while they are living in Australia. We pride ourselves on that. In fact, we go overseas and tell other countries about how they should operate in this way. What we are saying by opening this debate—by the exposure draft and the consultation in a process where the minister has already made a public commitment that he will make a change—is that, in that area, we are opening up the doors for people to question just how strongly we value these commitments that we have made over many years.

I think it is incredibly important that the whole issue of vilification be understood and that we have a debate about what that means. I also think that we should really see whether we want to limit any kind of threat of people being physically afraid. We have so much evidence, and in so much work we do here in the Senate we find out about the damage that is inflicted on other people in our community. It is not just physical. (Time expired)

3:38 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek to take note of answers by ministers, particularly those by the Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Boyce, we have a motion before the chair, and that is to take note of the answers by Senator Brandis to Senators Singh and Peris. Were you seeking to move a different motion?

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was seeking to address the answers, but particularly those of Senator Cormann.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

You will have to move a different motion for that. In that case, if you intend to move a different motion, I will call any other speakers who wish to speak to this motion first. Is that your intention, Senator Boyce?

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is my intention.

3:39 pm

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the answers given by Senator Brandis to questions without notice. I rise to ask the question that everyone is asking, and that is: why? Why now, days from a by-election that could alter the government's capacity to pass legislation? Why now, weeks away from a budget in which the government has been sincerely promising since September to make deep and lasting cuts to our social services, to put a blunt axe to foreign aid, to slice the budgets of our public broadcasters and to undermine the assistance that we extend to pensioners, single parents and low-income earners? Why does the senator think now is the time for Australians to be considering the degree of bloviating racism permissible in our public discourse? Why is this the pressing issue of our time? Why, when we have tried so hard to earn a reputation as a country that welcomes people of all races, does the first law officer of the Crown think that, among all the issues requiring urgent attention, the right to offend, to insult and to humiliate someone is worth rising up to defend? Why has the Attorney-General, with heavy heart and after careful consideration, determined that—of all the pressing matters, all the legislation weighing so heavily on the minister's mind and all the freedoms to protect and cherish—the freedom to humiliate someone based on the colour of their skin warrants this?

I would like to assert that, quite frankly, the reason this matter has come to the floor of this chamber is not the careful consideration of the Attorney-General, it is not that it meets the strategic objectives of the government's legislative agenda and it is not that the Racial Discrimination Act in its current form is so outrageously unjust. Of course not. The fact that this is a matter of urgency is simply due to the astonishing conceit, breathtaking arrogance and unbridled contempt that was so evident in Senator Brandis's response in this chamber on Monday. It is not just what the senator from Queensland said but the way he said it that has elevated this issue to a matter of pressing public concern. Senator Brandis's response to Senator Peris's question was delivered in a manner that made no effort to disguise his contempt and disdain for either the question or the questioner. Ladies and gentlemen, we were all here to witness it, but for the Hansard record I will repeat the minister's words:

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

For the Hansard record, I want to be clear and to use the two other words Senator Brandis proposes to omit from the act: his response was delivered in a manner that was both offensive and insulting. Whether it was a sound bite or a headline, Senator Brandis's response was reprehensible, cringeworthy and ultimately untenable. He left himself with no choice but to try to undo the self-inflicted damage.

So I ask again: why is the right to humiliate someone because of their race a matter of such urgency? The senator can continue to pretend that this is an issue solely about free speech, but it is not. It is more than that. It goes to the heart of this country. It goes to the heart of a multicultural nation. Frankly, the responses that have been given by Senator Brandis are both offensive and insulting in themselves. The unmasked contempt in his response to Senator Peris was simply astonishing. Senator Brandis is not simply defending the rights of the likes of Andrew Bolt. No, he has gone beyond that now. Senator Brandis, through his contempt, has been forced to use this issue to defend himself.

3:44 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Brandis to questions without notice. I was not aware of the initial motion when I stood to speak earlier. I am concerned by the level of contribution that has been put into this topic by a number of people. I was pleased to hear Senator Moore's comment that it is good that everyone has the opportunity to say that they abhor racism and that they will do what they can to stop it. But to suggest that to change a poorly drafted piece of Labor legislation is somehow to behave in a racist way is not acceptable. It is not about freedom of speech. It is not about anything that, in my view, should be happening in Australia or within Australian values. It is not reasonable. Senator Brandis has put out an exposure draft which will be available for a month for people to comment on, if they wish. If you do not like the way it is currently drafted—which Senator Singh certainly appears to believe—you are perfectly free to comment to Senator Brandis on the way it is currently drafted and to suggest new drafting. There is no way that there is not the ability for Australia to have legislation that both opposes racial vilification and allows freedom of speech. But it is not going to happen with the sort of nannying behaviour that we have had in the past from the former Labor government.

I do not believe that anybody could possibly see the outcome of the Andrew Bolt case as acceptable in Australia. It is not acceptable in Australia. I certainly share very few of Mr Bolt's views. But I will fight to the death—as would anybody, I would hope, in this place—for his right to express those views. Whether he expressed them accurately or not is not a matter for legislation around racial vilification. One would think that that sort of a problem could be taken to the Press Council if there were inaccuracies in the reporting. That is the body that deals with inaccuracies in media commentary or reporting. That is the body to talk to. To suggest that, because his report contained inaccuracies, it somehow becomes racial vilification is not reasonable in any way, shape or form. I did not like the views expressed in the article that was the subject of the court case involving Mr Bolt, but he has the right, in Australia, to have those views.

Whilst others might suggest that this is a very minor point to be using as the basis for changing legislation, it has the potential to be an extremely important point. I would think that anybody in this place would thoroughly respect and acknowledge that Attorney-General Brandis is someone who has the utmost regard and the utmost respect for law and for a liberal, with a small 'l', interpretation of law and the rights of the individual under the law in Australia. So I cannot believe that this opposition wants to attack this legislation. Well, I can, I am afraid, believe it. Certainly, if there were any penalties for inaccurate statements about legislation within this parliament the entire opposition—the entire non-government side—would stand condemned for the way they have misinterpreted and misrepresented this legislation.

I am a member of a very privileged group within Australia: a white Anglo-Saxon. I cannot begin to know what it is personally like to experience racial hatred or racial vilification. Nevertheless, I would not want to see that happen to anyone in Australia. I certainly have very strong views on disability discrimination. I do not want to see people attacked for their race in the same way I do not want to see people attacked because of a disability or because they are different in any way from anybody else. The opposition have a month to comment calmly and succinctly on this legislation. They should take it. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.