Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Matters of Public Importance

Racial Discrimination Act

3:57 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

A letter has been received from Senator Moore:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The Abbott Government's confused and chaotic approach to hate speech provisions in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the Clerks to set the clock accordingly.

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—Senator Day and I have sought today's 10-minute allocation for the crossbench. We are the sponsors of the bill on this matter. We have been allocated none of the crossbench allocation for speaking in urgency motions or MPIs since we started in the Senate in July. By contrast, the Greens have been allocated 54 of the 80 minutes of MPI and urgency motion time since December and a higher proportion in the previous period.

We would be comfortable with the Greens receiving an allocation of today's crossbench time based on their proportion of the crossbench, but we need an agreement that this occur in each MPI and urgency debate—including those where they propose the topic. To date, the position of the Greens has been to use all the crossbench allocation for MPIs and urgency debates when they propose the topic and half the allocation when they do not propose the topic. This is not proportionality.

3:58 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—The amount of time that is allocated for the crossbench during MPIs is 10 minutes. The Greens make up over half the crossbench. We have five minutes allocated during this particular time and the rest of the crossbench gets the other five minutes. It is up to them to work out how to deal with it.

I will note that yesterday was our MPI, and of the 20 minutes that we were due we used nine and gave the rest to the crossbench. So, there is time allocated for the crossbench. It is not the Greens' job to organise the rest of the crossbench; that is up to them—how they allocate their five minutes. But we chose to use the five minutes that we are due as the proportion of the crossbench time.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

What has been presented to me is a list with allocated speaking times for all but two of the list, and the two on the list are the two crossbench allocations of time. So what you are indicating to me—and, again, if it is the will of the Senate—is that we allocate five minutes to each of those two crossbench times? Is that what is being suggested? Because at the moment it is blank, which would have meant the call would have been given to a crossbench senator and the first crossbench senator could have spoken for any amount of time up to 10 minutes. So, unless I have any objection from the Senate, I take it that the list that has been circulated with times where it does not include times for crossbench is a five-minute allocation for two crossbench senators. There is a total of 10 minutes, but on the list presented to me there are two segments for crossbenches.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of clarification: it is up to the rest of the crossbench to decide how they want to contribute the other five minutes. If Senators Leyonhjelm and Day want to share that, I suggest that is up to them.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I will again seek advice. You are suggesting one of those items should be Greens rather than crossbench. Is there any objection to that? For further clarification, I will make the first allocation to the Greens party and the second allocation where it says crossbench to crossbench senators. I assume we will have some indication from crossbenches during the debate as to who the call will go to. Is everyone comfortable with those arrangements? I will now call Senator Singh.

4:01 pm

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

I speak to this matter of public importance because it is clearly about the Abbott government's confused and chaotic approach to hate speech but on top of that the division within the coalition on its approach to hate speech. None of us in this Senate will forget Senator Brandis's now infamous claims that 'People do have a right to be bigots, you know.' I am sure that Senator Brandis's coalition colleagues will never forget this clumsy and offensive remark that he made at that time. Senator Brandis's judgement at that time came under attack from that very moment on as he attempted to implement his foolish commitment to destroying section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

But what we have had since that time is chaos and confusion on the side of the government—so much so that we had the backflip on Senator Brandis's commitment that he and his colleague Andrew Bolt wanted to see change in the Racial Discrimination Act last year. There was a backflip on that put in place by pressure from the Prime Minister, and since that time it has seemed the government wants to go even harder to restrict freedom of speech for certain ethnic groups in our community.

You have that going on in one side of the executive of the government. On the other side you have coalition members—backbenchers like Senator Smith, for example—

Senator Edwards interjecting

and Senator Edwards, as he points to himself—wanting to bring it all back on again with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. We all recall very clearly how categorical the Attorney-General was that a government should never, in the interests of freedom of speech, be in the business of penalising people who hold objectionable views, in saying so absolutely ignoring section 18D of our Racial Discrimination Act. Having said that, now what we have is the government's acceptance of objectionable views that does not extend to objectionable views expressed by certain ethnic groups—notably, for example, the Muslim community. To quote Mike Seccombe in The Saturday Paper:

“People do have a right to be bigots, you know.” But only, it now appears, if they are government-friendly bigots.

When will this government say what it means and do what it says? We have had backflip after backflip if we want to talk about the GP tax or paid parental leave. Now there is section 18C, which we thought perhaps was dead, buried and cremated just like we thought Work Choices was, but it does not take long before it starts raising its ugly head again. They are all over the place on this issue.

We know clearly that after coming into government Senator Brandis published an exposure draft of his bigots' charter. Media reports followed, soon revealing that he had not originally intended to adopt a consultative approach to winding back section 18C at all; rather, Senator Brandis's preference was to ram legislation through the parliament without even a hint of public consultation. Well, the public consultation that he then put in place was pretty much a joke anyway. But, having said that, the broader community took him at his word and participated in that public consultation in a fairly big way, so much so that the Attorney-General got bombarded with so many submissions—submissions that he never released publicly, though some of the submitters themselves did—and we know clearly that the overwhelming majority of those submissions were against changes to 18C. It was that pressure by so many ethnic communities, so many people in the broader community, the legal fraternity and the NGO sector that led to Prime Minister Tony Abbott intervening on Senator Brandis's grand plan to wind back section 18C and ditch the whole thing.

We have had a ditching of the whole thing since August, but now we know the rumblings are there. Now we know that it is back on the agenda, isn't it, Senator Edwards? Isn't it, Senator Smith? And we know that we have the support of the crossbench in doing so. Senator Brandis needs to come into this chamber and make clear what this government's policy on racial discrimination laws in this country is. Where are they today? What is the weather today? Is it raining? Is it sunshine? Because it seems to change on a daily basis, just like every other policy issue this government puts in place. They are not fit to govern because they are a rabble. They do not know what they stand for; they are all over the place. In the meantime, it is people of various different racial backgrounds who are the victims of this government's delusional approach when it comes to racial discrimination laws. It is Labor's hope that our current racial discrimination laws—which include section 18C and section 18D, which addresses freedom of speech—remain as is. As they have continued to work for a number of years now, they do not need to be touched.

We in the Labor Party believe that Australia's political leaders ought to focus their energies on bringing people together—on inclusiveness and protecting the social cohesion that underpins our proud and successful multicultural country. That is what leaders should be doing, not trying to create division among various community groups; not trying to create division amongst the broader community. It is really disappointing to hear some voices from within the coalition who seem to feel their energies are better directed at prosecuting an agenda of intolerance, bigotry, fear and hatred than an agenda of inclusiveness, compassion and equality.

Section 18C has been used to combat the vilest forms of hate speech. Those coalition senators should read some of the case law in this area and realise that. Hate speech is behaviour the Labor Party believes has no place in a civilised society. I will refresh those coalition senators' memories on some of that case law. There is the case of Jones v Tobin, when section 18C was used to combat infamous Holocaust denier Frederick Tobin who sickeningly claimed that there is serious doubt that the Holocaust actually occurred. Shame! That case law used section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Before coalition senators come into this place with a bill which removes that provision, they need to read back through that case law and think seriously about what they are trying to do to this country by removing those protections as they currently stand.

The Labor Party does not believe this sickening attack has any place in Australian society. If coalition senators want to vote to support Frederick Tobin and his ilk, then the Australian people will judge them accordingly. The Labor Party opposes this type of behaviour. Today, coalition senators in this place must decide how they see this provision in that light. They must reflect on that case law when they are reflecting on their position and their beliefs, and their so-called 'principled' position on racial discrimination law. They could also, perhaps, talk to the Attorney and the Prime Minister, because the last thing the Australian community heard from them was that section 18C was off the table.

So where is the coalition on this position? It is in a completely different place to the Labor Party, which stands for inclusion and for section 18C remaining in our Racial Discrimination Act.

4:11 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It strikes me that Senator Singh, across on the other side of the chamber, is relying a lot on theatre and melodrama to make up for a lot of ignorance. The mere contention—

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

Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I find that objectionable. That is an objectionable comment made by Senator Edwards and he should know better than that, especially in addressing that comment to me.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the point of order on the word 'ignorance', Senator Singh?

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


Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Certainly. Senator Edwards, I invite you to change that word in your vocabulary.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw the word 'ignorance' and would perhaps insert the words 'lack of knowledge'.

What an extraordinary outburst. I am on the record and, indeed, have written about this subject. Obviously I was disappointed when the government decided not to proceed with these changes but I know that, in a good government and a pragmatic government, you get on with the big priorities and that is the way in which the leadership of the government saw it.

Senator Moore, you remind us today just how much the Labor Party has become a party of impressions. You see, they are very good on the other side over there, in Labor, of creating the impression that they stand for things, but they are not very good at following through with principled policymaking. They create the impression they support workers, but driving down economic growth hardly creates jobs. They create the impression that they support Defence, but cutting 10 per cent from its budget is hardly consistent with that. And they create the impression they support free speech, but alas—the evidence is they do no such thing.

Labor projected all of the rhetoric which created the impression they supported Charlie Hebdo and its murdered staff in the cause of free speech, but in practice they support the very legislation that would prevent that magazine from being published. On this side of the chamber our rhetoric matches our actions. We appreciate that free speech is a serious issue and one that requires a serious response; and where free speech overlaps with national security imperatives it is even more serious.

These are matters we would prefer to tackle on a bipartisan basis, if that is not beyond the Labor Party. When our enemies weaponise words and information to use against us, there is no place for playing politics. The facts are that there are people in our community who are preaching hatred and violence. They do so aiming to influence our young men and women to travel overseas to fight with or support terrorist groups who are in battle with this nation's armed forces, and they do so with the aim of influencing them to commit violence here in Australia too. To this end the Prime Minister and senior ministers regularly condemn hate preachers with their words and their actions.

The government introduced the foreign fighters bill last year, which included strong prohibitions against the advocacy of terrorism. The Attorney-General announced not two weeks ago that the government will provide nearly $18 million in funding to combat the lies and the propaganda that terrorist groups and their advocates circulate online. This will empower the government and community members themselves to directly challenge propaganda with the full force of the law at their side. The Combating Terrorist Propaganda Online initiative will limit the impact of extremist narratives on domestic audiences by reducing the support that terrorist groups garner on the internet and via social media.

We will establish a social media monitoring and analysis capability in order to better understand extremist narratives and how they influence Australians. The measures will also help reduce access to extremist material online through the recently launched 'report online extremism' tool. And we will work the with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the private sector and international partners to take down or otherwise address extremist content.

So the government is taking a dynamic approach to its communications to better contest the online environment. This will include promoting material online that challenges the claims of terrorists and shares the benefits of Australia's diversity, inclusion, democracy and social values. This is not work that governments can do alone. As the Prime Minister said recently:

The terrorist threat is rising at home and abroad – and it’s becoming harder to combat.

… … …

By any measure, the threat to Australia is worsening.

… … …

The number of foreign fighters is up.

The number of known sympathisers and supporters of extremism is up.

The number of potential home grown terrorists is rising.

… … …

There is no grievance here that can be addressed; there is no cause here that can be satisfied; it is the demand to submit - or die.

And so the government and communities are already working to help susceptible individuals reject terrorist propaganda, by questioning the assertions, inconsistencies and false allegations and by bringing to light the brutality of extremist groups. There will also be stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating or inciting hatred. These changes will empower us to directly challenge terrorist propaganda.

The government is deeply committed to its freedom agenda, which includes advancing measures to protect freedom of speech, freedom of religion and other traditional rights and liberties. The government is working closely with the community to combat radicalisation and extremism through the promotion of acceptance and tolerance.

We believe in an Australia where everybody is free to speak their mind. We believe in an Australia in which rights are accompanied by responsibilities. We believe in an Australia in which there is absolutely no place for racism, and all of our citizens live in a harmonious and mutually respectful society. Unlike those opposite, not only do we tell you what we believe in—all of this—but we are acting to see that it happens.

I hope that the contributions to the rest of this debate can be a little more balanced and less prejudicial than the last contribution we had from Labor, from Senator Singh. Thank you.

4:20 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We hear a lot about freedom and individual liberties in this place. We hear about how critical they are and how important they are for a democracy such as ours. It is usually from the conservative side of politics. Whenever a reform is introduced that might come up against the notion of freedom and liberty, terms like 'nanny state' are thrown around. We hear it time and time again.

We saw recently the unedifying spectacle of changes to the Racial Discrimination Act—not because of any concern from the community but because of course our friends at the IPA and mates at News Corporation wanted to see changes to our hate speech laws. But that issue was so imp. It was a touchstone issue for the conservative side of politics. It was fundamental to our democracy. We have to protect freedom of speech at every opportunity. We have to make sure that people have the right to say what they think, even if it provides offence to others. This is such a core principle that we are prepared to fight a campaign on an unpopular issue to see this law changed.

But let me tell you a test of principle is not being able to make an argument in a chamber like this when you have not been under pressure. A test of how committed you are to a core principle is whether you can stick by that principle when you are under pressure, when you have your back against the wall. That is a test of principle. And, on that test, this government has comprehensively failed.

This was such a touchstone issue such an important issue for this government that when this Prime Minister found himself under fire found his leadership threatened, where does he go?

He goes into the gutter. What does he pull out of his bag of tricks? Let's start banging the terrorism drum. Let's start talking about those Muslims out there and their hate speech. Let's talk about the importance of sending our troops overseas because we are under threat. Let's stoke fear and division in the community, because now it is not a principle of freedom and liberty—it is a principle of political survival. And political survival will trump everything when it comes to this government.

We had the disgraceful words of the Prime Minister, who, in response to the really difficult issue of terrorism—one that everyone in this place is grappling with—sends a message out to the Islamic community calling them liars, saying that what they need to do is not just say that they are opposed to terrorism but mean it, because the subtext is: 'You don't—you support it and you're stoking it.' How disgraceful. How disgraceful for a Prime Minister, whose job it is to lead this country, to come out and accuse those people, whose sons and daughters are being corrupted by what we are currently seeing and some of whom are leaving their families to combat this extraordinarily despicable war in the Middle East, of contributing to that, of condoning it. What a despicable act from a Prime Minister whose job it should be to unite the community, to provide some calm and reassurance and to bring us together.

Of course, hate speech is now no longer a problem. Ensuring that people have got the ability to express how they feel is no longer a core principle. What is more important is that we crack down on those people who we think are promoting this sort of activity. Do you know why? Because it is okay to be a bigot, but not if you are a Muslim. If you are a Muslim, we have got a different set of laws for you. We have got one set of laws for our mates at News Corp and the IPA, and we have got a different set of laws for those of you who find yourself the target of this government's policy. Principle is not expedient. If you are committed to the principle of free speech, then you stick to that through thick and thin. You stick to it whether your job depends upon it or whether you are sailing well in the polls.

This government has failed that test. It has demonstrated that when it comes to its own political survival it will say or do anything, even if that means going against the very core beliefs that it argued in this place only a short time ago. Either you believe in freedom or you do not. And this government has shown that, when the circumstances change, it too will change on those core beliefs. Freedom and liberty are only something to be supported when the circumstances demand it. (Time expired)

4:25 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to talk to the matter of public importance on the Abbott government's confused and chaotic approach to hate speech provisions in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. It really saddens me that we are still having to discuss this issue. It saddens me that last year when the Australian parliament was having a debate about whether it was okay to be a bigot, whether we needed to protect the rights of bigots, that the government said we did. The Attorney-General of Australia justified changing the Racial Discrimination Act because we needed to protect the rights of bigots. I really thought that this country had moved far beyond this and it saddens me that we are still forced to debate this issue.

For those of you who have forgotten, I will go back and quickly recap what has just brought us here. Last year the Abbott government announced that they would repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and there was enormous widespread opposition from thousands of community groups across this country. In fact, the only support came from groups and individuals who have never suffered racial discrimination. I heard Senator Edwards talking previously, saying that this is about free speech. I can remind him that, under pressure, the Attorney-General said in response to a question which I asked him in this chamber: 'People do have a right to be bigots.' Right then and there the cat was let out of the bag. This was not about protecting free speech; it was about protecting hate speech. And the Attorney-General defended the rights of Australians to be bigots.

I accept that the Attorney-General has suffered abuse; perhaps we all have. He feels he has suffered vilification at times, but he has never suffered racial vilification. He will never know what it is like to be abused because of the colour of your skin or because you belong to an ethnic minority group. He will never know what it is like and he has only listened to the people who will never know what it is like.

I have talked previously in the house about the devastating impact that racial abuse can have, and I could go on and on and on for days. For three months after the Attorney made the statement, the government continued to push ahead with the case. They continued to argue that the laws should be changed. In fact, I actually wrote to the Prime Minister, pointing out that his insistence to push ahead with changes to section 18C was compromising progress towards constitutional recognition. And guess what? The Prime Minister dismissed everything that I outlined in that letter. The government continued to argue that the laws should be changed, but the public continued to argue that the laws were a green light to racism and, finally, the Prime Minister caved in to the public pressure. But he did not say that the changes he was proposing were wrong. He even admitted that he rang Andrew Bolt to apologise for not implementing them. It was just about politics. He just said that the timing was wrong, because he wanted everyone to be part of Team Australia. We know that he still wanted to protect the rights of bigots—just not now. Perhaps later. But what he was doing was giving the green light to race hate speech.

Where are we right now? We are back at the drawing board and we now have a whole lot of government senators promising to continue to support the watering down of this legislation. Of all the things that the government have done, it is this that they choose to rebel on. They are not going to cross the floor on Medicare or higher education fees or cuts to the poorest people in society, but they will cross the floor to support the fight to protect bigots. It speaks volumes about their priorities. It also shows that they have given the nod—perhaps a wink. They know that they have permission to cross the floor, that it will perhaps be good for their career later on, and that they are not really opposing the Prime Minister. They know that, despite what he might say publicly, they have the support of the Prime Minister to continue to vote for the watering down of racial discrimination laws. The message that has been sent is very clear. They are telling their supporters not to worry: 'we still want to protect the rights of bigots.'

We have seen the hypocrisy of late. The government have announced that, in the name of national security, they want to crack down on free speech. They are essentially saying that if you are a member of a minority group you do not get the right of free speech, but you can have all the free speech you like if you are attacking a minority group. That is the message this government is sending.

There are senators in this place who have outlined their intention to vote in support of watering down these racial discrimination laws. I think that it is shameful; but, sadly, I am not surprised. As I have said, I find it really disappointing that this parliament is even having this debate. This community has moved on. Sporting associations and sporting bodies in Australia and internationally have all moved on. They all have rules against racial discrimination in any form and they run the highest public campaigns across this country. This parliament is the opposite. We are still debating whether bigots have rights. What an international embarrassment we will be as a parliament to endorse bigotry.

The Racial Discrimination Act has served Australia well for 20 years. It sends a message of respect, it sends a message of support, it sends a message of inclusiveness and it sends a message of harmony. Those who support the watering down of racial discrimination laws are spreading a message of bigotry and hatred, and shame on them. I support the current laws. I do not support the rights of bigots. I support a tolerant society and I really hope that this parliament does what the community wants us to do, and that is to show some respect for each other.

4:31 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is extraordinary coming into this debate, I have to say. You get words like 'hate speech', 'bigots' and 'racist'. Most of them have been directed at me over the last two or three years, and I have had to deal with them. The point I make is that these words are an excuse for not actually debating a substantive topic.

I have to say that there is a modicum of hypocrisy coming from some of those opposite who talk about hate speech and not protecting the rights of bigots and from those who say that somehow we are oppressing minorities and allowing only the majority to have this unfettered freedom of speech. I reject that in its entirety, just as I reject the terms 'bigots', 'racists' and any other epithets and slurs they want to throw at us. What I do support is what Senator Di Natale said—it might surprise you, Mr Acting Deputy President. He said, 'It's very easy to jump on a bandwagon when it's convenient but it is very tough to stick to principle when it seems that people are opposed to you or it is an unpopular principle.' I am quite proud of the fact that I have stuck to principle at every turn. I have stood in this place and called out the hate preachers for many years. I have called them out when they have been out there talking about 'uncovered meat' and justifying the rape of young Australian women. I called them out when some South Australia sheikh said, 'Oh Allah, count the Buddhists and the Hindus one by one. Oh Allah, count them and kill them to the very last one.' I consider that unacceptable. It is unacceptable to advocate violence against someone on the basis of their religion.

What I do not consider unacceptable is the fact that you are able to be critical of someone. You are able to say something that someone else may find offensive or insulting. That is a subjective term. And why are we subjecting ourselves to this arbitrary decision when someone says, 'I'm offended by what you've got to say'? The offence is quite often conjured up just to stop someone from saying something that they do not want to hear. That is what has happened in the debate around the hate preachers in some of the mosques. That is what has happened in some of the debate around tackling some of the extremists that are taking up in this country. That is what happens when you call it out and say, 'We are wasting money by throwing it into circumstances where people are not lifting themselves out of poverty or making a better contribution to society.' You get called a racist or a bigot. Or someone has taken offence. When someone like Andrew Bolt, who I am proud to call a friend, says that there are people gaming the system, he is taken to court over it and he is found guilty because someone took offence. That is absolutely wrong.

I stood with the Attorney when he put forward his changes to 18C. I thought they went a bit far—I have to tell you that—but it was a starting point for negotiation. It was a starting point for community discussion. But it was drowned in these accusations of bigotry and racism. I reject that in its entirety. That is why, when the government decided not to pursue it because of the vocal minority that was up in arms about it—those in the Twittersphere and elsewhere—I joined with Senator Dean Smith, Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Bob Day in sponsoring a very simple repeal of two words of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act: 'insult' and 'offend'. Somehow, that is racism. Somehow, saying that I do not want 'insult' and 'offend' in the act means that I am a bigot. That is simply not true, and it is not true because it has a cross-section of support. People like Paul Howes have said, 'That's a reasonable change.' You know, those notable right-wingers out there, like Julian Burnside QC, who said, 'That seems reasonable.' Greg Barns—who has been a candidate for every political party in the country, I think—has said, 'Yeah, that's okay.' A whole range of people across the political spectrum have said, 'This is a reasonable and sensible amendment to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.' But we will not hear that from those who are interested in perpetuating this cult of victimhood, this sense that somehow, because someone says something you do not like and you find offensive, you should be able to take them to a tribunal. This is a failing and it is a failing of debate in this country if we cannot stand up and have an honest and straightforward discussion without the sorts of slurs that have been put forward in this chamber and out there in the public domain.

What passes for debate in this country and what passes for media reporting in this country is, more often than not, some outraged leftie on Twitter who has been quoted by the media saying look how upset Cory Bernardi has made everyone today, because there is some anonymous desk jockey filing 140 characters of smear and abuse. That is not meaningful debate in the long-term interests of the country. We must be able to have serious conversations about the issues that are impacting us that risk offending people—and they do risk offending people.

We are somewhat protected from it in this place because we have this thing called parliamentary privilege where we can say basically what we like. We wear the wrath of it in the public sphere, but we cannot be taken to court over it. We have to use that judiciously. We have to use it appropriately. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong, but we know we are never going to front up to court over it. But the point I make is this: the rest of the country does not have that same privilege. If someone makes a comment that simply upsets someone because they have annoyed them or they have pestered or they have somehow made them feel uncomfortable, they can find themselves before some quasi-tribunal. This is absolutely wrong. It is devoid of common sense.

I do not agree that we should have unfettered free speech, because then we would have people like Sheikh Sharif Hussein in South Australia who is praying to god that all the Hindus and Buddhists would be killed. I think it is wrong to be preaching that sort of stuff out there. We should be countering it in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, we are not able to, because when you pick up this and you write to them and you say, 'What are you doing?' you get called a racist or a bigot or some other slur. That is what is fundamentally wrong. We cannot call out the hate preachers where they are.

When we are talking about hate, many times it is in the eye of the beholder. If we want to look at the hypocrisy, it was only in recent years the Greens decided the Murdoch press was somehow the hate press and were preaching hatred against the Greens and they wanted to enact some sort of government mechanism to limit the freedom of the press. I find that anathema. We have opportunities, if you are maligned by the press, to pursue it through the courts, as anyone else would, for defamation, but not simply because you are upset or somehow offended by what they have got to say. This is the hypocrisy that we are seeing in this chamber today. If we want to have a serious debate, let's have a discussion without the slurs. Let's have a discussion without the epithets. Let's have a discussion about what is in the national interest.

4:40 pm

Photo of Bob DayBob Day (SA, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There have been a number of motions and other matters in this place that I could have supported were it not for the way they were drafted. I oppose this because it talks about 'hate speech', an emotionally charged phrase if there ever was one, a phrase deliberately designed to misrepresent what this debate is about. This debate is not about hate speech; it is about free speech. Calling socially unacceptable comments 'hate speech' is itself a restriction on free speech. I do have a concern about the direction the government is moving on free speech. The government has moved from a pre-election promise to promote free speech to a post-election position of doing nothing and to recent statements that perhaps it will look to even further restrict free speech.

The private senators' bill that I and senators Leyonhjelm, Bernardi and Smith co-sponsored represents a sensible move to address free speech concerns in the Racial Discrimination Act. If the government has now decided that it is withdrawing the benefit of the doubt and going to the DRS, the decision review system, instead, the sensible ruling would be to take my approach, and that of my co-sponsors, and remove the contentious 'offend' and 'insult' provisions altogether. Our bill does not wipe out section 18C. It leaves the other parts like 'humiliate' and 'intimidate' alone.

An example of what my co-sponsors and I are on about is the recent case where the Prime Minister singled out a certain Islamic group for critique and, potentially, legal sanctions. Yet, if you look at an interview on Lateline with a spokesperson for that group, you will see the great public benefit gained by allowing that organisation to have as much free speech as it wants. Professional, forensic interviews and critiques of the positions advocated by that group will expose to the public the very disturbing aspects of their beliefs and the serious problems with their statements and whether or not they sit well with the Australian people. Banning that group's freedom to speak, however, is not the answer.

Family First has consistently supported national security bills in this place as it believes these are the best methods to guard against those who promote and support terrorist activity. When people act or conspire to commit criminal acts at home or abroad, then we have criminal laws to deal with them. It is unacceptable, however, to have criminal laws dealing with matters of debate and speech. Since my co-sponsors, whom I again thank today for their support—and I notice that Senator Smith is here in the chamber—and I tabled a bill to reform section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, we have seen some appalling further attacks on free speech in Europe. People have paid with their lives for the freedom to speak as they find. As my wife's Auntie Esther used to say, 'I speak as I find.' If we support free speech—one of the foundations of this place—then the right thing to do is to remove the prohibitions against it.

4:43 pm

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

I rise to support the matter of public importance, and I do so quite conscious of the fact that, while my views may differ on this from those of others in the chamber, I acknowledge that the intention of those who disagree with me on this, in many cases, does come from a good place. It comes from a belief that they are, at times, promoting the principle of freedom of speech. What concerns me is the reality of what changes to section 18C will do, as opposed to simply the theoretical, rhetorical position. But let me begin.

I think the principle of freedom of speech is a very important one. The principle of being able to have an environment in which different people can propose opposing views, and views that are not always the same, is something we should be very proud of and something we should enshrine. What concerns me when governments go down the path of changing things like the Racial Discrimination Act is what message that sends to the outside community. I appreciate and respect that some may argue that the message it sends is that we are going to be a tolerant society with freedom of speech. But the reality is it gives a green light to a handful of bigots, a handful of those full of hate and a handful of those who want to denigrate and mock others to behave in an appalling way.

One of the many things that makes this country so fantastic is that we are a country of migrants. We are a country that is built on the idea people are able to come here from around the world, are able to maintain their culture, are able to maintain their identity, are able to maintain their language and be Australian at the same time. That is an incredibly important principle and a principle that we need to protect. The danger, when you go down the path of tampering with things like the Racial Discrimination Act, is that you start sending a signal to those out there who want to misuse this kind of language, who want to promote hate. You start sending a message that is okay to be a bigot. I really worry about what the long-term consequences of that are.

You only have to talk to the migrant communities across the country to realise we are so lucky to be able to live in a tolerant, open, free society with over 260 different ethnic communities and languages interacting with one another in Sydney alone, which really is a cultural melting pot. We are so lucky to live in that environment. There is a small minority though who promote hate. There is a small minority who promote racist views, who make the lives of those migrants harder and harder.

When you speak to the community leaders, when you speak to the parents, when you speak to the mums and dads who come from migrant backgrounds, the reason why they are so concerned about all of this is because they are not seeing it through the prism of theoretical debate in the nation's parliament about the principle of freedom of speech. They are seeing it through the reality of what kind of a green light it sends for what is said to their child in the playground.

I think there is a real disconnect that we have to make sure we bridge in this debate. Let us not kid ourselves, those 76 of us who have the privilege of being in this chamber are incredibly lucky. We have an incredible opportunity and an incredible platform. That is not a benefit that most people have and that is why when we have this debate we make sure we understand the disconnect between where we are now, how we have the debate, the theoretical debate we have about this idea of freedom of speech and the reality of what watering down something like the Racial Discrimination Act will be the message that sends and the symbol that sends.

I was here for Senator Day's contribution. While the principle is something that is laudable and important, the reality of what happens when you start watering down something like the Racial Discrimination Act is that it sends a message. I worry that the message it sends is that it is okay to be a bigot, that it is okay to promote racist views, that it is okay to promote views the majority of Australians do not hold. I think the concern out there in the community about is legitimate and is real because they are the parents, they are the families, that they are communities that have to deal with the consequence of those views being promoted.

4:49 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am also pleased to speak this afternoon on the motion, which reads:

The Abbott Government’s confused and chaotic approach to hate speech provisions in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Might I thank Senator Dastyari for his calm and reflective comments in what is a very important debate. It is an important debate because it is easy to drift into accusations and unpleasantness about people's motives. Right up front, I would like to acknowledge Senator Dastyari's contribution because he refrained from that and he pointed to the fact that senators like myself and others approach this issue with great sincerity.

Before Senator Dastyari spoke, I was inclined to talk about Labor's actions this afternoon being one of playing politics with this issue because it is not a secret that within the coalition there are various views amongst senators and members, myself included, about where the appropriate balance is to be struck between free speech and protecting people from shameful and hurtful comments. It is a debate about where the balance is to be struck.

I argue that where it is struck at the moment is not right, is inappropriate. In a few moments, I am going to share with you others that share my view who you would not expect to hear from—Julian Burnside, for example; Sara Josef, for example—but I will come to that point in a moment. It is important to say up-front that my position is different from the government. So as a government senator, let me be clear what the government's position is.

The Prime Minister and senior ministers regularly make strong statements condemning hate preachers and the poison they spread amongst the community. That is an undisputed fact. The government has introduced foreign fighters legislation that has included strong prohibitions against the advocation of terrorism. The Attorney-General did announce on 20 February 2015 that the government would be providing nearly $18 million to combat the lies and propaganda the terrorist groups are spreading throughout our community, particularly online. This will empower the government and community members to directly challenge terrorist propaganda. Importantly, the Prime Minister also announced in February this year that the government will be taking strong action against hate preachers including stronger prohibitions on vilifying, intimidating or inciting racial and religious hatred. These strong prohibitions, these initiatives of the government, on hate speech will clamp down on organisations and individuals who breed hate and incite violence. The government of course is giving consideration to the criminalisation of this conduct and it is important to note that the government is not considering amendments to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 as, in its view, the RDA is a civil regime. So that is the position of the government.

My position of course is slightly different. I suspect this is where we would have ended up if the very genuinely inspired consultation process of the government had been allowed to run its course. We would have ended up with a proposition to remove the words 'offend' and 'insult'. And why would we have ended up there? Because prominent Australians were already there. Human rights activists and lawyers were already at that position. Let me just share with you, briefly, what Justice Robert French had to say. That name will be familiar to you, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, because he is a very esteemed Western Australian lawyer. He is of course now the Chief Justice of the High Court of this Commonwealth. In Bropho v HREOC, Justice French said:

The lower registers of the preceding definitions [in 18C] and in particular those of 'offend' and 'insult' seem a long way removed from the mischief to which Art 4 of CERD is directed. They also seem a long way from some of the evils to which Part IIA [of the RDA] is directed as described in the Second Reading Speech.

The now Chief Justice of the High Court previously said, 'Before we engage in this debate, where we have ended up with Senator Day's, Senator Leyonhjelm's, Senator Smith's and Senator Bernardi's private senators' bill is a responsible position to be. That is compelling for me. I suspect that in a more tempered debate it would be compelling for many Australians.' Let me add to that—and this is from someone whom I would not regularly quote—what Julian Burnside had to say. He is a prominent human rights lawyer and he has publicly said:

… the mere fact that you insult or offend someone probably should not, of itself, give rise to legal liability. My personal views is that 18C probably reached a bit far so a bit of fine-tuning would probably be OK.

The Australia Human Rights Commission said in its submission to the now abandoned consultation process about reforming 18C and its comment on the exposure draft of the Freedom of Speech (Repeal of S. 18C) Bill 2014 considered that:

… the legislation could be clarified so that it more plainly reflects the way in which it has been interpreted in practice.

In the limited time that is available to me, let me just add one more supporter, the very respected human rights lawyer Professor Sarah Joseph, Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, who has said:

… the prohibitions on that which offends and insults, even on the basis of race, go too far. Feelings of offence and insult are not serious enough to justify restrictions on the human right to freedom of speech … It is true that the terms "offence" and "insult" have been interpreted so that they mean more than "mere" offence and insult. It is arguable that judicial interpretation has saved these provisions from actually breaching the right to free speech. However, the law should mean what it says. If "offence" and "insult"' do not mean what they say, the prohibitions should go.

I am not renowned for my patience, but on this issue I will be patient because I have every confidence that, one by one, senators in this place will realise the wisdom of this approach to free speech. I do not doubt for a second that there will be some road blocks and people will try to make political mischief, but I am confident that community opinion will change in the favour and in the direction of the private senator's bill, which is sponsored by Senators Day, Leyonhjelm, Bernardi and me. Thank you.