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Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 - Second Reading Speech

30 March 2017

I really cannot believe we are here in 2017 debating again the issue of watering down protections against race hate speech in this country. But, yes, here we are again, thanks to a certain group within the Liberal Party who are absolutely obsessed with trying to water down the protections that we currently have provided in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. There was a reprieve some years ago, and we thought that the government had seen the error of its ways. It dumped changes that it wanted to make at that time which were basically very similar to what we have before us now—changes to water down those protections against race hate speech. But unfortunately they have raised their ugly heads again. A certain group within the Liberal Party has lobbied the Prime Minister hard to make him backflip and bring this legislation on. So unfortunately we are back here again. And look at the day that they chose to do it. It was actually on Harmony Day, the day that we celebrate that everyone belongs. That is the day that the government chose to announce that it would be bringing forward legislation to water down the very essence that ensures that everyone belongs, the underpinning of everyone belonging, and that is the race hate laws in Australia. What an absolute disgrace.

Who would have thought it? If you had been asked which one, out of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, would bring forward legislation to water down these laws, you would have thought that perhaps Tony Abbott would have been the one to do it. You would never have thought that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would be doing such a thing—someone whom people once referred to as a small 'l' liberal, not one of the cabal to bring these laws on. And that is what it is: a particular group within the Liberal Party who are absolutely obsessed with this issue. They do not care for the fact that out there in the street no-one is talking about this. No-one is coming up to me—or to any member of this Senate, I do not think—and saying, 'When are you going to water down race hate laws in this country? When are you going to do something about section 18C?' That is not what people are talking about on the street.

What people on the street are asking is, 'When are we going to have, legislated in the Australian parliament, marriage equality?' That is what people are asking. People are asking, 'When is the government going to act on climate change? When is the government going to address underemployment in this country and inequality in this country?' These are the issues that people on the street are actually talking about. If those Liberals who are obsessed with this issue would get out of this bubble in Canberra and actually talk to some real people about what their issues and concerns are, they would soon realise that nowhere on that list is 'Let's reform and water down section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act'. And yet here we are. I look forward to the crossbench supporting Labor to stop this government obsession with allowing bigots to have that right to be bigots—because that is what this is about.

An interesting poll came out this week—a Fairfax Ipsos poll—which showed very clearly, from about 1,400 voters, that 78 per cent of Australians believe it should be unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Seventy-six per cent of respondents who intend to vote for the coalition in fact said they support retaining the words 'offend, insult, humiliate'. So, even if you do not want to listen to the average person on the street, what about listening to some of your own supporters who do not want this law changed? Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce himself made it clear that this does not resonate as an issue with mainstream voters. It is not passing the pub test, as one would say.

So why are we here? It was 2014 that we were debating this last time, under an Abbott prime ministership. It is 2017, and we are back doing it again. It is like we are in some kind of groundhog day on the issue. Just as Labor won the fight to protect Australia's laws against racial discrimination in 2014, we will do it again. We still do not have an answer, though, to the question that the Prime Minister refuses to answer, and that is: what does he want people to be able to say that they cannot say now? What is it that those Liberals who want this law changed so desperately want to say that they cannot say now under the current law? One thing we know very clearly about this law is that it is not just about people's feelings getting hurt. The bar is higher than that, and the government knows that. It knows it very clearly. Therefore, what is it that they really want to say to people of different race that they cannot currently say? The court has interpreted section 18C so that it only applies to 'profound and serious effects, not to be likened to mere slights'. There is the bar. The bar is there. So why does the government want to repeal those three words and water them down, replacing them with one word, 'harass'? It does not make sense.

I say to this government: haven't Aboriginal people in this country gone through enough already; do you really need to do this? Haven't ethnic groups and new migrants all done enough to try and fit in to this country, to the Australian way of life; do they really deserve this? These are the people that you are attacking by bringing this ridiculous piece of legislation back into this place. This is a complete failure of Malcolm Turnbull's leadership, as if we did not have other examples of that failure already. Even Tony Abbott—even Tony Abbott—stood up to the IPA faction of the Liberal Party and dropped his idea to change the law, back in 2014.

I hope that the government learns from this. I hope that, after the votes are cast in this place tonight, the government learns from this and drops its ridiculous obsession with wanting to give the green light to racists, bigots and anyone else who feels that the current laws do not give them enough freedom to say whatever it is that they want to say. And I ask them: what is that? What is it that you feel so constrained about, living in Australia, that you cannot say to people of different races? What is it?

The law as it stands works fine. The polls that have been conducted say that the public think that the law works fine. No-one on the street is talking about having these laws changed. This is just a ridiculous waste of the Senate's time, and it shows that the government is completely out of touch with Australian values, with the Australian idea of what it means to live in a multicultural country and with what is important to Australians. The sooner the government wakes up and realises that, the better. The sooner this government is voted out of office—even better.