Abbott's plan to allow offensive, insulting and humiliating abuse strains already troubled race relations, writes Greg Ansley

It's all part of Tony Abbott's vision of a new Liberal dawn. The Australian Prime Minister's conservative Government intends to dilute racial vilification laws to enshrine the right of Australians to be bigots.

Amid fury and concern even within his own party, Abbott has invoked the greater goal of free speech to amend the Racial Discrimination Act to allow offensive, insulting and humiliating abuse so long as it does not incite hatred or violence.

"Those three words — offend, insult and humiliate — describe what has sometimes been called hurt feelings," Attorney-General George Brandis. "It is not, in the Government's view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others."

He added during a debate in Parliament: "People do have a right to be bigots, you know."


The proposed amendments, contained in draft legislation now open for public comment, have unleashed a storm of anger from indigenous and ethnic groups, political rivals and human rights activists.

Within Government ranks the new legislation has triggered deep concerns among backbenchers. New South Wales' Liberal Premier, Barry O'Farrell, publicly attacked Brandis' defence of bigotry.

"Bigotry should never be sanctioned, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Vilification on the grounds of race or religion is always wrong. There is no place for inciting hatred within our Australia society."

Warren Mundine, hand-picked by Abbott to head his new Indigenous Advisory Council, also criticised what he described as a bizarre move when interviewed on ABC radio.

"I get racial abuse every day. We all know that from history, when you let people off the chain in regard to bigotry, then you start having problems."

This comes as a disturbing mirror has been placed in front of the nation.

A new Monash University survey found that only 3 per cent of migrants — including New Zealanders — who arrived during the past 20 years considered Australia to be "caring, friendly and hospitable".

It found more than an 40 per cent of recent arrivals from a number of Asian countries suffered discrimination in the past year.

Another study led by the University of Western Sydney further found that between 66 per cent and 79 per cent of respondents supported laws against racially offensive, insulting and humiliating behaviour.

Tony Abbott's govt defines discrimination as acts that cause 'hurt feelings'. Photo / Getty Images
Tony Abbott's govt defines discrimination as acts that cause 'hurt feelings'. Photo / Getty Images

Abbott will also face a roadblock in the Senate, where Labor and the Greens will vote down the legislation. It may face problems even when the new Upper House sits on July 1, with mining magnate Clive Palmer's United Party yet to decide its position. PUP will hold the balance of power.

But the Government is determined to press on regardless, planning to put the legislation before Parliament when it resumes in May.

Its amendments would replace the present strictures against "conduct causing offence, insult, humiliation or intimidation" with the outlawing of behaviour that is "reasonably likely to vilify (requiring incitement to hatred) or to intimidate".

"The most troubling aspect about the proposed changes — along with knowing that Australia's chief law officer is a champion of the right to bigotry — is the blithe assertion of a dominant cultural perspective," Professor Simon Rice, director of law reform and social justice at the Australian National University, wrote in The Conversation.

"No member of the Australian racial majority — politicians, policymakers, opinion writers — can understand what it is to have one's life defined by one's difference," he wrote.

The legislation also exempts "words, sounds, images or writing, spoken, broadcast or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or a scientific matter".

"We now have an exemption that you can drive a truck through," Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said.

The legislation has its supporters, ranging from the conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs to the far Christian Right Stand Up Australia Party, which opposes multiculturalism and Islam.

But it has been broadly condemned elsewhere. Said Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs: "It is not clear why intimidation should not include the psychological and emotional damage that can be caused by racial abuse. Of particular concern is the scope of the exemption provision [which is] so broad it is difficult to see any circumstances in public that these protections would apply."

NSW Aboriginal Land Council chairman Craig Comelin said: "It is astonishing that our top lawmaker seeks to passionately defend the right of people to be bigots [instead of] the rights of the most marginalised people in our society."