News National Turnbull refuses to rule out freedom of speech inquiry

Turnbull refuses to rule out freedom of speech inquiry

Malcolm Turnbull
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he won't stand in the way of an inquiry into freedom of speech. Photo: AAP
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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated he will not stand in the way of an inquiry into freedom of speech, as he faces growing calls from his own backbench for changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

A significant number of Coalition MPs want the words “insult” and “offend” removed from Section 18C of the Act, arguing the laws, as they stand, impede free speech.

Liberal senator Dean Smith has used the legal action targeting News Corp cartoonist Bill Leak and students at the Queensland University of Technology to push for an inquiry saying there needs to be a “measured debate” about the Act’s relevance.

Mr Turnbull has consistently said his Government has no plans to change race hate laws but on Friday he appeared to be open to the idea of a broader inquiry.

“Many people feel that the provisions of 18C impose unreasonable restraints on free speech or impose restraints on free speech over and above what is needed to prevent hate speech,” he said.

“That’s been a live issue for quite some time.

“Senator Smith has suggested that it be looked at by a committee and parliamentary committees are a good way of examining issues of this kind.”

bill leak aboriginal cartoon
The cartoon by The Australian cartoonist Bill Leak that has helped bring the issue to a head. Source: The Australian.

Crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm has suggested he may support the Government’s industrial relations legislations should it change 18C, along with other measures that increase personal liberties.

Mr Leyonhjelm said he met with the Prime Minister on Thursday to discuss his vote but insisted the repeal of 18C was not at the “top of his list”.

The senator would not confirm what other trade-offs he would consider, but said he would not support the Australian Building and Construction Commission without amendments.

“If the vote was held today, then my answer is no,” he said.

The West Australian senator told the ABC it was time for Parliament to “canvass community opinions and test the arguments for reform” and he suggested this could be done via a Senate, House or Joint Committee.

The conservative wing of the Coalition believes amending the Racial Discrimination Act is a vital issue for its base and views a parliamentary inquiry as a circuit-breaker to the heated debate around the issue.

Every Coalition backbencher in the Senate is supporting a private member’s bill to remove the words “insult” and “offend” from section 18C, while still maintaining protections against hate speech.

However, the bill cannot pass Parliament unless the Government changes its position and endorses changes to the racial discrimination act.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott went to the 2013 election promising to get rid of Section 18c altogether but he was forced to abandon the plan a year later out of concerns for national unity.

On Friday a judge threw out a case against three Queensland University of Technology (QUT) students who were accused of racially vilifying an Indigenous woman.

Alex Wood, Jackson Powell and Calum Thwaites were being sued under section 18C over social media posts they allegedly made in 2013.

QUT students in court
QUT student Calum Thwaites outside the Federal Court in Brisbane after his case was thrown out.

Indigenous administrative officer Cynthia Prior claimed she had been vilified by the men on Facebook after she asked one of them to leave a computer lab reserved for Indigenous students at QUT.

In March, the trio applied to have the case struck out before it proceeded to trial.

Federal Circuit Court Justice Michael Jarrett handed down his decision in Brisbane on Friday afternoon.

Section 18C makes it unlawful for someone to do an act that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity.