Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that his cabinet is considering an inquiry into freedom of speech in relation to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a backflip from his August statement that the Government had “much more pressing priorities”.
Section 18C makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people based on their race or ethnicity.
Turnbull said the Coalition conservatives’ calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the issue had “considerable merit”.
“There is a view that the bar that is set is too low, in other words, that proscribing conduct which insults and offends is too much a restriction on free speech,” Turnbull told ABC Radio on Monday.
Turnbull also called for the Human Rights Commission to “urgently review” the way it handles section 18C complaints after a Brisbane judge dismissed a case against three Queensland students.
The students were accused of social media vilification of an Indigenous officer on campus.
“What it shows is that the Human Rights Commission must urgently review the way in which it manages these cases,” he said.
“To have a case like that – which will have involved the expenditure of considerable Commonwealth money, taxpayers’ money, considerable money on behalf of the students, imposed enormous stress on them – and have it chucked out, struck out as having no reasonable prospects of success, what the court was saying, what the judge was saying to the Human Rights Commission is, ‘You’ve been wasting the court’s time. You’ve been wasting government money.'”
A number of Coalition politicians have voiced their support for an inquiry.
Liberal senator Cory Bernardi tweeted, “It’s about time, but the real question is why it has taken so long? The abuse of 18C has been evident for years.”
Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie said while the Government would like to protect minorities, it also sought to defend “one of the most important elements of democracy, which is free speech”.
The opposition has criticised Turnbull’s backflip. “The Prime Minister is willing to trade race hate protections to protect himself from his backbench,” said Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.