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Friday, 22 March 1985
Page: 668

Senator COATES —My question to the Minister representing the Attorney-General concerns human rights and is in two parts. First, has the Minister seen reports of the call earlier this month by Dame Roma Mitchell, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, for Government action on racial defamation? She said that about a quarter of the complaints received concerned offensive statements about people merely because of their race, yet nothing could be done at present. Are there any plans to amend the law to allow an action against such statements consistent with the principle of freedom of expression? Secondly, will the Government consider establishing a fully fledged office of the Human Rights Commission in Hobart, especially because of the absence of any concern or action at all by the Tasmanian Government on anti-discrimination matters?

Senator GARETH EVANS —As to the first question, in 1983 the Human Rights Commission under the chairmanship of Dame Roma Mitchell issued a report on Racial Defamation and Incitement to Race Hatred. The Commission recommended the amendment of the Racial Discrimination Act to prohibit public utterances or conduct likely to result in hatred, contempt or violence against persons of a particular racial or ethnic group; to prohibit public threats, insults or abuse of racial or ethnic groups; and to prohibit actions holding persons up to contempt or slander by reason of membership of a particular racial or ethnic group. The Government, I am advised, is still considering this difficult issue and is conscious of the need to protect Australian society from the threat constituted by racial defamation and incitement to racial hatred, but without damaging the important right of freedom of speech. I have answered a number of questions on this topic in the last 12 months, and have indicated to the Senate the difficulty of trading off those two sets of values. The problem has still been found to be no easier to resolve.

As to the latter part of Senator Coates's question, I understand consideration is being given to the establishment of effective human rights machinery for the hearing and resolution of complaints in all States of Australia, including Tasmania. The hope of the Government remains that this can be achieved by a system of what has been described as one-stop shopping to ensure that no confusion or duplication of Commonwealth and State functions exists. It is hoped that it will be possible, preferably with the co-operation of the State Government but if not without, to establish a Human Rights Commission presence in Tasmania as soon as budgetary considerations enable that to be possible.