Why the latest human rights committee report is so significant

The latest report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is very significant. It clears the way for all members of parliament to support the modest amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

I’m talking of course about the freedom of speech bill drafted by South Australian Family First Senator Bob Day and sponsored by Liberal Senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith and Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm – the Racial Discrimination Amendment Bill 2014. The bill proposes to remove the words “offend” and “insult” from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

These are the words that form the lowest hurdles in the legal threshold created by section 18C, which currently makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person on the basis of that person’s race, colour or national or ethnic origin. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the only way to restore free speech is to repeal section 18C in full. Removing the words “offend” and “insult” is an imperfect solution to the problems of section 18C but it is an important step forward.

The report of the PJCHR is significant for two reasons.

First, the committee that handed down the report is made up of members from the Liberal Party of Australia, the Australian Labor Party and the Greens. Agreement between the three main protagonists in Australian politics is a rare thing. Yet Senator Day’s bill has united them. In the case of the latest human rights committee report there is tri-partisan agreement that the current proposal to amend section 18C does “not raise human rights concerns”.

Secondly, the committee is a statutory creation of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011, an act which requires the committee to consider Australia’s international human rights ‘obligations’. The legislation specifically refers to the seven human rights treaties to which Australia is a party. Relevantly, this includes the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a treaty which formed the basis of the Whitlam government’s decision to introduce the Racial Discrimination Act.

The report of the human rights committee directly contradicts supporters of section 18C who have argued that any change to section 18C would be a violation of Australia’s international human rights obligations. The more savvy human rights academics have recognised that section 18C sets the bar far too low and have argued that at least the words “offend” and “insult” should be removed.

And that’s all Senator Day’s bill proposes to do.

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