News National Government’s proposed changes to 18C defeated in Senate

Government’s proposed changes to 18C defeated in Senate

Ian Macdonald, Nick Xenophon and George Brandis discuss changes to 18C in the Senate. Photo: AAP
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Proposed changes to race-hate speech laws are dead in the water following a fiery marathon late-night Senate debate.

The Turnbull government wanted the words “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act changed to “harass and intimidate”.

It also wanted to tweak the way the Human Rights Commission deals with complaints, a move with broad support.

Labor, the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and crossbencher Jacqui Lambie opposed changes to the wording of 18C, robbing the government of the 39 votes it needs to get it through the upper house.

The attempt to reword 18C was killed off by a Labor amendment to the bill, 31 votes to 28, leaving the commission’s process changes remaining.

Labor leader Penny Wong sneakily moved Labor’s amendment, catching other senators off guard.

Conservative crossbencher Senator Cory Bernardi was outraged she had hijacked the debate before his amendments could be considered.

Attorney-General George Brandis flew the flag for the 18C changes until the bitter end, arguing it was a hallmark of a free and democratic society that all members have a right to voice their opinions.

“We all, as citizens of a democracy have an obligation to respect the equal right of every other citizen to hold and express their views,” he said.

“If we do not believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe it at all.”

Protesters march through Sydney to oppose changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Photo: ABC

Senator Brandis said the spirit of the late cartoonist Bill Leak had presided over the debate and it was a sad day the changes did not have enough support.

Mr Leak died of a suspected heart attack in March, after coming under fire for a controversial editorial cartoon about indigenous parental neglect.

He was investigated for a possible breach of 18C, but the racism complaint was subsequently dropped.

Labor senator Jacinta Collins said there was no popular support for the changes.

“But that does not stop the ideological agenda,” she said.

Pauline Hanson used the debate to declare Australians were not racist and criticism was not racism. She backed the 18C changes and said those on the left were deliberately encouraging minorities to “stir the pot”.

Veteran Liberal Ian Macdonald said Mr Leak might not have died had the government pursued changes to 18C in 2014 before former prime minister Tony Abbott took it off the agenda.

Greens senator Nick McKim argued the Human Rights Commission had “begged” Mr Leak and The Australian newspaper to submit an 18D defence, which allows exemptions for artistic work and fair comments on matters of public interest.

Senator McKim claimed they refused because of an ongoing vendetta against the rights watchdog.

“All the arguments about what terrible a trauma this whole thing was for people at The Australian and Mr Leak is premised on marshmallows,” he said.

Senator Bernardi said 18C was being used by the left to shut down debate and the process attached to investigate alleged breaches was “rotten to the core”.


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