A parliamentary committee has failed to reach a consensus on whether the nation’s racial discrimination laws should be changed, instead proposing a “range of pragmatic” options for the government to consider.
The report, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, focuses much of its attention on improving the way the Human Rights Commission handles complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act, recommending the Commission be given the ability to knock back vexatious claims at an earlier stage, or those with little chance of success.
However, the committee did not make any concrete recommendations on the contentious Section 18C of the Act, putting forward options ranging from leaving the section unchanged to replacing the words “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” in Section 18C with the word “harass”.
It puts the Prime Minister in a difficult position because, without a consensus, it will now be up to him to decide whether to pursue any changes.
The issue has become a totemic one for the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, which believes Section 18C is overly subjective and impedes free speech.
Committee chair Ian Goodenough said he was in favour of changing Section 18C, arguing it was not the role of the government to “police petty social misdemeanours”.
“We are dealing with offences at the lower end of the spectrum of ‘insult’ and ‘offend’ which do happen occasionally in the course of social interactions,” he said.
However, Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce has openly questioned the push by his Coalition partners, saying voters do not care about the Racial Discrimination Act.
“They’re talking about income. They’re talking about making sure they get treated fairly,” he said.
“But I’ll be quite frank, they do not invite me into their shed and say, ‘Barnaby, sit down in this chair, I want to talk to you about the Racial Discrimination Act’.”
Liberal MP and committee member Julian Leeser supports the existing racial discrimination laws, but he has hailed the report as “historic” saying it offers a pathway towards fixing the procedural problems surrounding section 18C.
“These reforms will see that complaints with no prospect of success, such as those made against the QUT students and Bill Leak, are thrown out,” he said.
Under the changes, anyone subject to a complaint would be notified more quickly and given more assistance and time limits would be imposed on the complaints handling process.
In a sign that the backbench will continue to agitate for change, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz released a statement calling on the government to “urgently” amend Section 18C.