Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull allowed the inquiry into 18C. Photo: Alex EllinghausenA suite of changes to ‘s race-hate laws will be proposed when a report on the Racial Discrimination Act is released on Tuesday, but it will be up to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to decide whether the government takes any action.
While the report has yet to be publicly released, Fairfax Media has been told that one of the options for reform will be that the words “offend, insult and humiliate” be removed from section 18C of the act and replaced with the word “harass”.
The word “intimidate” would be left in place and the word “vilify” would not be added, as has been previously suggested by some advocating changes to the law.
The proposal is likely to create a fresh political headache for Mr Turnbull, who slipped further behind in a Newspoll on Monday and is under sustained attack from Labor over proposed cuts to Sunday penalty rates.
The proposed change to the wording of the act is considered one of the most ambitious options for change in the report and it is by no means certain that it would be taken up by Mr Turnbull – though the Prime Minister is certain to face pressure from the Right of his party to adopt this big change.
Other, less controversial options that the report will flag include changes to the functioning of the n Human Rights Commission, which would allow it to knock back so-called vexatious complaints earlier in the complaints process.
A third option for reform presented would involved broadening section 18D – which offers protections for discussions, debate and publication of comments “if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment”. This is also considered a less controversial change.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has prepared the report after hearings around late last year, will leave it up to the Turnbull government to decide which, if any, of the range of reform options proposed are adopted.
A source familiar with the committee’s deliberations said they would be very surprised if the Turnbull government does not adopt some of the proposed reform options, but acknowledged that changing the wording of section 18C would be one of the more difficult changes to push through.
Last August, 13 government senators signed a petition to change the act but at the time, Mr Turnbull said change was not a priority.
After resisting that push, amid a growing clamour from the Right of the party for change, Mr Turnbull relented late last year and the inquiry was called.
Changing the act is a totemic issue for some members of the Coalition, who believe the laws as currently constituted represent a curb on freedom of speech.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott promised to change the act when opposition leader, but dumped the changes amid a massive community backlash in 2014.
Last week, Mr Abbott suggested the Human Rights Commission should be scrapped entirely as part of a five-point plan to reconnect with the party’s conservative base.
However, there are also Liberal MPs who believe that changing the law – which, in their view, would weaken protections for ns from discrimination – could also send the wrong signal to ethnic and community groups who support the laws as currently written.
By proposing reform options in the report, the committee is effectively leaving it up to government and giving Mr Turnbull the room to make the call about whether to proceed with the changes.
The report is due to be tabled in Parliament on Tuesday.
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