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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 1937

Racial Discrimination Act 1975

Senator McKIM (Tasmania) (14:18): My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General. Attorney, isn't it true that your government's desire to water down section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is in fact an attack on the foundation of Australia's multicultural society? Why do you think that, in a country described by the Prime Minister as one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world, people should be able to insult and offend other Australians on the basis of their race? Are the rights of racists more important than the harmony of Australia's multicultural society? Attorney, why are you ignoring the consensus position of Australia's multicultural communities who say that weakening the Racial Discrimination Act will give a green light to race hatred?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:19): Thank you very much, Senator McKim. Before addressing your question, if I might for a moment put party politics aside and express the concern of those who sit on the government benches, and I am sure of all senators, for the wellbeing of your colleague, Senator Ludlam. May I convey on behalf of the government and of all senators our best wishes for his speedy recovery.

The government is immensely proud of the success of Australian multiculturalism. No government in Australian history, either coalition or Labor, did more to advance multiculturalism in this country than the Howard government. Between the time the Howard government commenced in 1996 and the time the Howard government came to an end in 2007, Australia had been transformed, as a result of the policies of that government, into a multicultural society—the stand-out success story of multiculturalism in the world. And I remember an anecdote that Mr Howard told once—

Senator McKim: Mr President, I rise on a point of order: I do not recall asking about anecdotes or the time that this country had to suffer under John Howard. What I recall asking about is section 18C, whether the Attorney believes the rights of racists are more important than the harmony of Australia's multicultural society, and why multicultural communities are being ignored by this government.

The PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator McKim. There were four clear elements to your question, which I noted, and the Attorney is certainly within topic. He has given a preamble, but the Attorney-General has heard your point of order.

Senator BRANDIS: Mr Howard related a conversation he had with Dr Henry Kissinger at the time of the Sydney Olympics in 2000—Dr Kissinger, one of the great statesmen of the 20th century. And Dr Kissinger said to Mr Howard, then Prime Minister at the time—

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Pause the clock. Order! Senator McKim, a point of order.

Senator McKim: Thank you, Mr President. I have no doubt that you can pre-empt my point of order, but you have described the Attorney's contribution to date as a preamble. I draw your attention to the fact that there is just over 20 seconds left of a two-minute response—that is an awfully long preamble. I wonder if you could draw the Attorney's attention to the substance of the actual questions he was asked?

The PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator; you do make a fair point. Attorney-General, I remind you of the question.

Senator BRANDIS: Senator McKim, you asked me about the government's support for multiculturalism. So, Dr Kissinger said to Mr Howard: 'This is an extraordinary country because it is the most multicultural society in the world and yet it is one of the most harmonious societies I have ever seen.'

The PRESIDENT: Order! Pause the clock for a moment. I did indicate that there were four key points to Senator McKim's question. It did include the aspects of multiculturalism, but I think, in fairness, you need to address some of the four elements of his question.

Senator BRANDIS: So, Senator McKim, of course I can confirm not only the government's very strong commitment to a harmonious, multicultural society but our very successful track record in being the architects of one. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator McKim, a supplementary question.

Senator McKIM (Tasmania) (14:22): Attorney, can you give a specific example of which racial slurs your government would like Australians to be able to use should 18C be watered down but which cannot currently be used under the provisions of 18C? If you cannot provide an example, will you admit that this is simply yet another sally in the never-ending cultural wars prosecuted by the far Right of your party masquerading as a free speech crusade?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:23): Well, Senator McKim, I do not think we would regard Mr David Marr, that lion of the left, as being a member of the far Right wing of the Liberal Party. But Mr David Marr, as recently as yesterday morning on the Insiders program called for reform of section 18C.

I do not think we would regard Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, as being part of the right wing of the Liberal Party. But in Senate estimates three weeks ago Professor Triggs, in response to some questions from our colleague Senator David Fawcett, said that she was very open to and would welcome a conversation about aspects of the way in which the Human Rights Commission deals with complaints.

I do not think we would regard the Australians Law Reform Commission as part of the right wing of the Liberal Party. But in its report on rights and freedoms that was tabled in December of last year the Law Reform Commission said that there was a case to be made for such a reform. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator McKim, a final supplementary question.

Senator McKIM (Tasmania) (14:24): I note the abject failure of the Attorney to answer any of the questions I have asked so far. But, Attorney, the far Right of your party described 18C as a curb on the freedom of speech. If your government is serious about protecting free speech, why will it not address, for example, Australia's rigid defamation laws, strategic lawsuits against public participation commonly brought by corporations in this country, and, for that matter, section 42 of the Border Force Act? (Time expired)

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:25): We are very serious about freedom of speech. That is one of the reasons why, quite early in my term as the Attorney-General, I provided a reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission to look into traditional rights and freedoms. In a very important report that they published at the end of last year, which I launched earlier this year, they explored, among other things, by chapter 4, the various ways in which freedom of speech is limited and constrained under Commonwealth law.

This is an issue which we as a Liberal government are always alert to to ensure that we get the balance right. We are absolutely unashamed of being determined defenders of freedom of speech. We are determined defenders of the freedom of speech of people who agree with us and equally determined defenders of the right to freedom of speech of people who disagree with us, because that is what freedom of speech demands.