THE Abbott government has bowed to pressure from ethnic groups including the Australian Jewish community, scrapping its proposed wind-back of the Racial Discrimination Act on Tuesday.
A tent-pole Coalition policy leading into the 2013 election, the controversial changes, which would have seen the repeal of several sections of the Act, including 18C, were abandoned following months of community consultation.
Section 18C, which deems it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group based on race, ethnicity or colour, was the part of the Act used to prosecute Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben in 2003.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the decision came following consultation with cabinet and describing the axed repeals as “a needless complication”.
“Over the last five months, the government has undertaken a comprehensive process of community consultation,” the Prime Minister said.
“We wanted to hear from all stakeholders and all sections of the Australian community on this issue. We have listened to what you had to say and the government will not repeal sections 18B, 18C, 18D and 18E of the Act.
“At a time when the threat to Australia from extremists is real and growing, we must focus on the things that unite us as Australians. Everyone needs to be part of ‘Team Australia’.”
The AJN made several attempts to contact Attorney-General George Brandis, who has championed the repeals since they were mooted while the coalition was in opposition, but at the time of press he had not responded.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim hailed the backdown as a “wise decision” and said the truth had “won out”.
“The extraordinarily large number of written submissions received by the Federal Government opposing its proposed changes indicate that most Australians understand that racial vilification laws are a necessary last resort for the targets of race hate to defend themselves,” Wertheim said.
“Although we were disturbed by the possibility of our legal protections being diminished, the extended public debate about the legislation has had a salutary educative effect in the wider community, and this can only be for the good in the long term.”
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told The AJN Brandis had been rolled by cabinet and labelled Tuesday’s announcement as a “humiliating backdown” for the government.
He also congratulated the Jewish communal leadership for its part in lobbying the government.
“I congratulate the leadership of the Jewish community, as I have congratulated community groups across Australia. Leadership in the Jewish community was vital in this campaign,” Dreyfus said.
The announcement that the proposed repeals would be shelved came during a press conference on counter-terrorism on Tuesday.
“[The press conference] was being used as cover to dump what were clearly deeply unpopular proposed changes to 18C. The link [to counter-terrorism] is extremely tenuous.”
Chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission Dr Dvir Abramovich welcomed Tuesday’s announcement.
“The ADC, along with an overwhelming majority of racial, ethnic and religious groups, made the strong case that these essential protections have been used to protect individuals and communities against racist hate speech and that any dilution of race laws would have been damaging and would send a signal that hate speech is acceptable.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Peter Haskin