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Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Page: 236


Senator BACK (Western Australia) (15:21): It is arguable whether it was the French philosopher Voltaire who made the comment—from the French translation to English it is even more obscure—but the words were along the lines of: I disagree with you on what you say but I will die to defend your right to say it. In this place, of all places in Australia, we must surely be free to be able to debate without fear or favour.

I recall once, when I was on the other side, Senator Wong reminding me that the whole question of 'take note' relates directly to taking note, and, with deep respect, I say to my good colleague Senator Dodson: the motion was to take note of what Senator Brandis said. It is not for me to correct him, except to say that, whilst I was particularly interested in the content of what he had to say, he was not in fact speaking to the motion, which was to take note of the leader of the government's comments.

Can I also draw, with respect, Senator Dodson to his statement that this effort is to repeal section 18C. With respect, it is not; it is to amend 18C, to leave in terms related to 'intimidate, humiliate or vilify', but simply to remove the words 'offend or insult'. Surely in a country in which we pride ourselves for our freedom of speech, we must feel free for people to make comments which might in fact be insulting or offensive to another.

As Senator Macdonald correctly said, probably Senator Cameron and I over the years have offended and insulted each other on many occasions. But it allows me to make the point that one cannot predict whether or not a statement is likely to insult or be offensive. The point was made in this place a few minutes ago with the Queensland University of Technology incident that has exercised the minds of so many recently, when three young people went up to a computer lab and were told that it was a laboratory to be used only by Indigenous students. One of those students subsequently put, I think, on social media—Facebook—words to the effect of, 'I didn't know I wasn't able to enter that laboratory'.

We know that the young person who was the attendant in that laboratory must have taken offence or felt insulted, because she came out and said so, and we know that Professor Triggs has subsequently taken action against that student. It simply makes the point that you cannot predict whether a person is likely to be insulted or offended. But I do join with Senator Macdonald in his comments, and I join with Senator Brandis on the statements he has made on many occasions in this place when same-sex marriage has been debated—the fact that it is illegal in this country to discriminate against another person.

But I am going to give you an example where an offence and an insult took place against myself. I was in mass in Applecross, and the priest in his homily gave, as part of a joke, a comment about a blind mouse and a blind snake. I will not tell you the details of it except to say that it was about politicians. It was something on which I took deep offence—you can imagine it was the analogy of the snake—but I have no right to feel insulted or offended by the comments or to actually bring an action in the court against that priest.

What I did do was go up to him and do two things. I suggested, firstly, he finds out who is in his congregation—and, secondly, the fact that I was not happy with that event. I only use that analogy because I do not want to belittle in any way the comments made by Senator Dodson except to say that 'insult' and 'offend' do not have a place in 18C, because he could not predict the likely effect on me as a result of his comments.