Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson says Tony Abbott has missed the opportunity to reclaim freedom of speech rights for Australians by backing down on proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
The prime minister has ditched plans to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of race, colour or ethnicity.
The repeal of 18C had been widely criticised as a watering down of protections against racism.
But Mr Wilson says the decision is disappointing.
“We shouldn’t be giving up our freedom, because once you do they are very difficult to get back and that’s what we’re seeing with Section 18,” Mr Wilson told ABC radio.
“The government’s decision to back down on this is incredibly disappointing.
“The changes don’t help protect society against racism or harassment … it actually goes to centring political opinion,” he said.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane welcomed Mr Abbott’s move.
“I still see no good or compelling reason to be changing laws that have been in place for 20 years which have worked well, which have enjoyed widespread support and which reflect our society’s commitment to racial tolerance.”
The President of the Islamic Council of NSW said his community was also pleased by the backdown.
“I think it’s a win for Australia and win for common sense,” Khaled Sukkarieh said.
“No one has the right to racially vilify another person and we all want free speech but we have to say it responsibility without .. hate and violence.”
Arab Council Australia chief executive Randa Kattan said: “It is gratifying that community voices have been heard.
“No real case was ever made to justify repealing section 18C or weakening the Act overall.
“Had the proposed changes gone ahead we believe that members of our community would have been subjected to increased racial vilification without any recourse to defend themselves. All racism is intolerable.”
ACOSS chief Dr Cassandra Goldie said the prime minster ought to be praised for the “sensible step”.
“The last thing we want to see in our country is the watering down of important protections that have helped make our community strong, by condoning abuse and intimidation on the basis of a person’s race or ethnicity and potentially fuelling racial tension,” she said.