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Question Time: George Brandis and the 'Andrew Bolt Protection Bill'

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:18): My question is to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. Regarding your plans to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and remove the law against offending, insulting or humiliating a person on the basis of their race, Mr Ken Wyatt told The Sydney Morning Herald last week that his belief that these racial vilification laws should remain is shaped by 10 years of experience in Western Australia's Equal Opportunity Commission tribunal and by witnessing how racial vilification has significant impacts on people in ways that we do not fully appreciate. Given Mr Wyatt's experience, and given the strong views of ethnic communities and of the chairman of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, Mr Warren Mundine, why is the government proceeding with its bid to repeal the law against racial slurs?


Senator BRANDIS (Queensland-Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:19): Thank you, Senator Wright, for that question. Senator Wright, you do not appear to be aware that there is in fact no Commonwealth law which proscribes racial vilification. Racial vilification is not conduct described by section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. One of the problems with this debate, if I may-through you, Mr President-say so, Senator Wright, is that people make commentary on laws which they have not read. And you have just done that, Senator Wright. It is the view of the government that we can have strong protections of freedom of speech and appropriate laws to protect people from racial vilification; and that the two are not inconsistent objectives. Senator Wright, might I direct you to what I regard as a very wise editorial in this morning's The Australian newspaper, in which the editorial writer makes the point that the problem with public debate in this area in Australia is that it is impossible to have a discussion about race without being accused of being a racist. That is the problem-

Opposition senators interjecting-

The PRESIDENT: Just wait a minute, Senator Brandis. On my left! Senator Wright is entitled to hear the answer without people interjecting. Order! On both sides-Senator Brandis is entitled to be heard in silence.

Senator BRANDIS: So, Senator Wright, these are not inconsistent objectives: to have the best laws protecting Australians from racial vilification, and to have laws at the same time which do not impinge upon the right of citizens to hold and to express opinions without being told what to say, or to think, by government. And that legislation will be introduced before the middle of the year.

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:22): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In fact, the term 'racial vilification' was a quote from Mr Wyatt-and that leads me to the supplementary question. Did the Prime Minister need to intervene to limit coalition dissent about the repeal of these laws in a dispute between your coalition colleagues in cabinet yesterday, as reported in The Australian today?

The PRESIDENT: Order! I will not give the minister the call until there is silence on both sides.

Senator BRANDIS (Queensland-Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:22): Well, Senator Wright, there actually was not a cabinet meeting yesterday but, nevertheless, Australia is having a discussion about the Racial Discrimination Act and there is a variety of points of view. Just as the Australian people are having a discussion about the Racial Discrimination Act, so are members of the coalition parties.

You illustrate the very problem that I pointed to a moment ago, Senator Wright, as if there is something impermissible or dangerous about having a discussion about what is, on anybody's view, a vexed social issue. I tell you what, Senator Wright: when you find a social practice like racism, which does exist in certain quarters of Australian society, political censorship is not the answer.

Honourable senators interjecting-

The PRESIDENT: Senator Wright, you are entitled to be heard in silence.

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:24): Thank you, Mr President. Thank you, Senator Brandis, for your answer. My further supplementary question then is: why are you and the Prime Minister ignoring the voices of reason both inside and outside your party and pushing ahead with a law that licenses the public humiliation of people because of their race-an amendment that should perhaps be called the 'protection of Andrew Bolt' bill?

Senator BRANDIS (Queensland-Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Vice-President of the Executive Council, Minister for Arts and Attorney-General) (14:24): Well, Senator Wright, all voices in the coalition parties are voices of reason. But, Senator Wright, let me tell you something: reasonable people, decent people, can disagree in good faith and still be reasonable people.

Honourable senators interjecting-

The PRESIDENT: Senator Brandis, resume your seat. This outbreak in the chamber is disorderly. I know that you are reaching out to each other, but it is-

Senator Cameron: Cory is on his way back!

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron! I remind honourable senators that this is completely disorderly. Senator Ronaldson and Senator Cameron! Senator Bernardi, Senator Wright is entitled to hear the answer in silence without you people interrupting Senator Brandis. Senator Cameron! Senator Carr!

Senator BRANDIS: I think we see, Mr President, in Senator Wright's supplementary question, the very problem here is that there is a view amongst some, but not among us, that only one point of view or one set of opinions ought to be allowed to be expressed and, if you dissent from that set of opinions, there is something wrong with you-that you are a bad person or a wicked person or a racist. Let me tell you something else, Senator Wright: Mr Andrew Bolt has just as much right to his point of view as you, Senator Wright, have to yours.

Honourable senators interjecting-

The PRESIDENT: When there is silence, we will proceed.


Read Penny's media release about this exchange here.


Penny's following speech to take note of the answer:

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (15:43):  I  move:

That the Senate take note of the answers of the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, to my questions about the government's proposed repeal of the provisions of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Along with many stakeholders who have been working hard to strengthen ethnic communities and to protect people's rights in Australia, I want to see the details of the Attorney-General's proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. That is because we have certainly heard a lot about them since 2011, when the Andrew Bolt case was handed down by the Federal Court.

These changes have been on the coalition's agenda for a considerable amount of time now, at the behest of Andrew Bolt and the Institute of Public Affairs. The repeal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is one of their radical ideas to transform Australia. We can see that the coalition government is working systematically through that list.

Since 2011, when the Federal Court determined that Mr Bolt had breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which covers behaviour that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates a person because of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, these changes have been mooted by Senator Brandis.

And, in the midst of the faux outrage on the part of Andrew Bolt and his barrackers about the court's decision, let us recall what the court actually found. They found that Mr Bolt's articles were written with inaccurate facts, and not written in good faith. They found that he breached that section of the Racial Discrimination Act. There is no doubt that Mr Bolt has a very loud voice, and a significant platform from which to vociferously express his own personal views and opinions. The suggestion that there is a limitation on Mr Bolt's ability to get his message out would seem a bit laughable, as his are columns syndicated in Mr Rupert Murdoch's various News Limited newspapers, and he has his own television program. He also has some very powerful friends, as the current debate indicates.

Maybe today is an opportunity to share with those who are listening some of the stories heard from people who are coming to me and appealing to have those laws preserved-because they have personally, and often on a daily basis, experienced the mischief, the discrimination, the humiliation, and the vitriol; with corrosive effects on their health and sense of wellbeing in Australia. Indeed, that is one of the only positives that has come out of this proposal, which is hanging over some of the most vulnerable people in society-that is, the way in which various groups have come together and spoken with one voice in vehement opposition to the changes to these laws. They are groups from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, including Australia's first peoples, and people from the Greek, Chinese, Jewish, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities, among others. They have all said very clearly that they do not want this amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act that is being proposed by Senator Brandis. They do not want to see, in Australian society, a licensing of public humiliation against people because of their race. And that is because there is so much at stake here.

We know there is clear evidence that exposing people to racist abuse causes real damage. There is evidence that behaviour like this harms not only individual victims but also society as a whole. Section 18C was introduced 19 years ago in response to a critical mass of evidence, calling for such protection against racial abuse. It was not an authoritarian whim; it was a thoughtful response to bodies of work including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; the National Inquiry Into Racist Violence; and this Australian Law Reform Commission's investigation into Multiculturalism and the Law-all of which recommended that protections against racist abuse should be enhanced. Thus, we ended up with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The Australian Greens support freedom of speech as a fundamental human right but, as with many other human rights, it needs to be balanced. It is certainly balanced in other areas of Australian society, including in protections against defamation.

The Australian Greens are hearing the voice of the community on this issue. We have a strong track record on human rights, including a commitment to freedom of expression. On the issue of affording people protection from discrimination, we will stand strong against the licensing of racial hate. We will not be party to a weakening of protections of some of the most vulnerable people in Australia, and we will not be party to the passage of the bill which is going to be put forward in the Senate by the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, and in the House of Representatives-which we are proposing should probably be characterised as the Protection of Andrew Bolt Bill.


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