Malcolm Turnbull tries to contain backlash from Indigenous and ethnic groups over change to the Racial Discrimination Act

This article by Katharine Murphy and Christopher Knaus  from The Guardian (21 March 2017), provides as very good explanation of where the attempt to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is and what it means. Given that this is the present battleground for those who wish to bring in a new era of vilification for political purposes and those striving to fight it, this is important reading for all Australians.

The Turnbull government is expected to proceed with its controversial overhaul of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Senate on Wednesday, as the prime minister reached out to Indigenous and ethnic community leaders in an effort to contain a significant community backlash.

The government confirmed on Tuesday it would attempt to remove the words offend, insult and humiliate from section 18C of the RDA and insert the word “harass” – a move that weakens the existing protections against race hate speech.

While the controversial proposal appears certain to be blocked in the Senate, with the Nick Xenophon Team signalling opposition to changing the wording in the legislation, groups representing Indigenous Australians and a wide range of ethnicities have responded furiously, telling Guardian Australia the changes will validate and fuel racism against their communities.

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s decision, and during a debate in the Coalition party room meeting, a number of moderate Liberal MPs defending marginal seats urged the government leadership to leave 18C alone and focus instead on overhauling the processes administered by the Australian Human Rights Commission to ensure vexatious cases don’t end up in court.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the minister for international development and the Pacific, warned during Tuesday’s party room debate that taking on 18C would hurt the government in ethnic communities and would invite a significant campaign against the government by the ALP at the next election.

In an effort to contain the political damage from the decision to proceed on 18C, Turnbull made phone calls after question time to members of his Indigenous advisory group and to ethnic community leaders.

Guardian Australia understands the government made the in-principle decision to proceed with both legislative and process changes on 10 March, just before the sudden death of the cartoonist Bill Leak, whose work became emblematic in the controversy.

The cabinet on Monday night considered the bill the government intends to introduce to the Senate on Wednesday before taking that proposal to the Coalition party room for discussion and confirming its intentions publicly on Tuesday.

With Labor intent on pursuing parliamentary attacks against the proposal, and the activist group GetUp preparing a ground campaign against the changes, it is clear the government wants prompt consideration of the 18C proposal.

Indigenous, ethnic and faith groups are now turning their attention to the Senate, preparing for an intense lobbying effort to ensure, as the Ethnic Communities Council puts it, that “common sense prevails”.

Xenophon told Guardian Australia on Tuesday night the NXT would stand firm against any changes to 18C but would support changes to the processes administered by the AHRC to stop frivolous complaints going forward.

Unless Xenophon changes his mind, the government will lack the requisite parliamentary numbers to make the change.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples described the government’s proposal as an embarrassment to the nation.

The forum’s president, Kenrick Cheah, said Turnbull’s announcement on Tuesday sent a clear message to the community.

“You’re letting children know that it’s OK to make fun and humiliate on the basis of people’s race and colour,” he said. “It’s preposterous as a society we should be moving away from that. Yet it’s 2017, with a PM who is supposed to be very moderate, and we’re actually trying to change laws to make it easier for racists to hurt people.”

Most organisations welcomed the clarification of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s complaints handling process. That included the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, who said the changes would help reduce procedural inequities

But the council’s executive director, Colin Rubenstein, said he remain opposed to any change to 18C.

“We certainly see no justification for changing 18C which we believed has worked well,” Rubenstein said. “The truth is that it would unleash another bout of litigation to work out what the new terms mean.”

Asked whether the council would now lobby senators against the changes, Rubenstein said: “We have been heavily involved in the debate all along, our views are well known. And I’m sure when called by people like you we’ll continue to put our views.”


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