Graffiti in Sydney. Photo: wiredforlego via Flickr
Graffiti in Sydney. Photo: wiredforlego via Flickr

A push by the Australian government to water down controversial hate speech laws has highlighted tensions between freedom of speech and racial harmony in one of the Asia-Pacific’s most multicultural nations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who leads the centre-right Liberal Party, this week unveiled plans to reform Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person on the basis of race or ethnic origin.

Turnbull, a former journalist, lawyer and investment banker, proposes replacing “offend,” “insult,” and “humiliate” with the stronger term “harass” in a reform he argues will better protect free expression while continuing to limit hate speech. His changes would also oblige the body handling complaints under the act to apply a “reasonable person” test to cases and give it leeway to knock back trivial claims.

“We are putting it in language that does the job,” Turnbull said on Tuesday during testy exchanges in parliament with the center-left Labor Party, which is adamantly opposed to the changes. “What we are delivering is a stronger and fairer section.”

Critics of Section 18C, mostly on the right, have agitated for change ever since conservative columnist Andrew Bolt fell foul of the act in 2009 over several columns he wrote implying that several fair-skinned Aboriginals had played up their heritage for personal gain.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbot tried and failed to amend the law in 2014, but the issue re-entered the spotlight following a number of contentious cases, the most high-profile of which involved a newspaper cartoon by the late Bill Leak that took aim at neglectful Aboriginal fathers.

While Section 18C does not impose criminal sanctions and most complaints are resolved in mediation facilitated by the Human Rights Commission, critics say free expression is being chilled by the prospect of being fined or burdened with huge legal fees in court.

“We should be able to express our views about political matters as we see it without the threat of legal sanction after the fact”

“Freedom of speech is not just the heart of individual freedom, but also at the heart of our democratic compact,” said Chris Berg, a senior fellow at free market think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs. “We should be able to express our views about political matters as we see it without the threat of legal sanction after the fact.”

Ethnic community groups, human rights organizations and left-leaning politicians have fiercely resisted the changes, warning of free rein on racial hatred and discrimination in a country where more than one in four people were born overseas.

Within minutes of the prime minister announcing his proposals, Australians from ethnic minority backgrounds flooded social media with their experiences of racism in a country politicians often tout as the most successful multicultural nation on earth.

Far from being a principled stand for a democratic value, many defenders of the law see the prime minister’s move as nothing more than a sop to the far-right, which has gained ground in the polls despite Australia having largely avoided the populist tsunami that has swept the world.

Before the last election, Turnbull, widely seen as a moderate under severe pressure from the most conservative wing of his party, denied any intention to change the law. Although his turnabout is expected to please the party’s right-wing base, the proposals face an uphill struggle to become law. Already, a key minority party in the highly divided Senate, The Nick Xenophon Team, has signaled it will vote against the government.

“It’s really a cover for a major campaign by the far-right, of the Liberal Party primarily, to try and license basically hate speech on a racial basis,” said Peter Boyle, a socialist activist who immigrated from Malaysia in the 1970s.

Boyle said that watering down the law was bound to have frightening real-world consequences.

“It’s a major licensing, and the impact doesn’t stop with words,” he said, “and this is the thing that people have to understand: Every time a person in leadership in Australia licenses racial abuse and racial humiliation, what follows is racial violence.”

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