Malcolm Turnbull has flagged he is inclined to set up a parliamentary inquiry into the controversial section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Questioned on Friday about the section, he pointed to a call by West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith for such an inquiry, saying that “I think the argument that senator Smith makes is a fair one and the government will be considering it”.
Turnbull has been resistant to revisiting the amendment of 18C. His predecessor, Tony Abbott, had intended to change the act but then retreated, largely because of a backlash from ethnic communities.
But pressure has increased recently, with almost all Coalition senators formally backing a move by Liberal senator Cory Bernardi to remove the words “insult” and “offend” from the section.
The freedom-of-speech push against the section - which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on racial grounds - has intensified with the row over a cartoon by The Australian’s Bill Leak, which depicted an Aboriginal father not remembering his son’s name. The cartoon was the subject of a complaint to the Human Rights Commission under 18C, and is now being investigated.
There is also a high-profile case involving three white students at Queensland University of Technology who were ejected by a staff member from an indigenous-only computer room, and later wrote allegedly offensive posts about it. Using 18C, action was launched against them by the staff member.
Smith this week urged that the debate involving senators be broadened to encompass members of the House of Representatives as well as the general community.
While Turnbull, speaking on Melbourne’s 3AW, repeated his standard position that the government had “no plans to amend 18C”, his raising of Smith’s proposal and his willingness to countenance an inquiry will be seen as representing some movement on his part.
He said there were a lot of people talking at cross-purposes because “you can talk about amending 18C – the real issue is, how do you amend it?”
Smith had made the argument “and I think it is a reasonable one that there should be an open, if you like, calm, cool discussion of the issues relating to this.”
It was a contentious area, he said. “The questions are these: should there be a prohibition against insulting or offending somebody?” The crux was whether the bar was too low: “nobody is suggesting we should have any tolerance for hate speech or language that promotes racial hatred”, Turnbull said.
Asked about Leak, Turnbull said that of course Leak was not a racist. “He’s an Australian, he’s a cartoonist, he’s … a controversialist. … He’s a very colourful, passionate Australian of enormous artistic ability”.
Turnbull pointed to the joint committee on human rights as the appropriate committee if there was a parliamentary inquiry. It is chaired by WA Liberal Ian Goodenough.
Goodenough said on Friday that if Turnbull referred the matter to the committee, it would be happy to undertake the inquiry.
He personally was in favour of removing the words insult and offend, he told The Conversation. The recent cases had indicated that perhaps the section was being taken too far:
“The original intent was to prevent harm or serious detriment to racial minorities. Insult and offend may be a step too far – too petty an offence. There should be other ways of dealing with insulting or offending than through a legal approach”, Goodenough said.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra