November 19th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY QUT discrimination case exposes Human Rights Commission failings

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs in the gun: loaded section 18C to get overhaul

EDITORIAL First Brexit, now Trump - it's the economy, stupid!

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump Whitehouse

MANUFACTURING Foreign ownership no sole reason for breakdown

ENVIRONMENT Billionaires bankroll U.S. anti-coal campaign

LIFE ISSUES Abortion trauma link to male suicides

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Commission's "Get Pell" campaign fails on facts

GENDER AND POLITICS Pronouns, ordinary folk, and the war over reality

NAVAL MILITARY HISTORY A WWII encounter that deserves remembrance

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China builds Great Wall in the South China Sea

MUSIC Dylan's Nobel prize causes song and dance

CINEMA Humanity within inhumanity: Hacksaw Ridge

BOOK REVIEW Bill is $500 billion and counting

BOOK REVIEW Arguments and facts: the man who remade Russia

POETRY Sunset at the Perth War Cemetery

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Triggs in the gun: loaded section 18C to get overhaul

News Weekly, November 19, 2016

After months of declaring section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act a side issue, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has launched an inquiry that is likely to lead to a change in the law and possibly an overhaul of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Ironically, a key culture wars issue that both John Howard and Tony Abbott managed to avoid, has become a Turnbull issue as a result of persistent pressure from News Limited – The Australian newspaper in particular – an incompetent Human Rights Commission, and a high-profile case that the Federal Court eventually threw out and that appeared to be (at best) a vexatious case of alleged discrimination.

Mr Turnbull has declared the issue worth considering in order to restore what he calls “balance” in the Racial Discrimination Act.

Section 18C of the act makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group on the basis of race, colour or national or ethnic origin. It puts the onus on the accused to argue that they did not offend the person making the complaint.

The controversial nature of section 18C was highlighted by the Andrew Bolt case. The journalist lost the case brought against him for comments he wrote about fair-skinned Aborigines.

Many MPs inside the Coalition believe that the words “offend” and “insult” should be taken out because it makes it absurdly simple to use the Racial Discrimination Act as a weapon to stifle or shut down legitimate debate and public discourse.

The Parliamentary inquiry will be undertaken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The committee’s chairman, Ian Goodenough, has indicated he personally favours removing the words “insult” and “offend”.

Labor and the Greens argue that the inquiry is a gateway for “hate speech” in Australia and claim that Mr Turnbull is now beholden to the far right of the Coalition.

The terms of reference are broad. The inquiry will examine whether the relevant part of the Racial Discrimination Act imposes “unreasonable restrictions upon freedom of speech” and, if so, how it should be reformed.

It will also look at the Human Rights Commission’s handling of complaints, especially those that appear to have no reasonable chance of success, as well as finding ways to speed up its cumbersome processes.

The commission itself is in large part to blame for the predicament it finds itself in, being over-eager to find cases and encouraging anyone who might come to it with even the most dubious of complaints.

For example, the commission appeared to encourage a complaint against a provocative Bill Leak cartoon in The Australian, featuring an Aboriginal father who didn’t know his son’s name, even though there should be little chance of success as a result of the public interest protection provision in the act.

And its handling of the case involving students and a staffer at the Queensland University of Technology, where a dubious complaint was lodged after the students were excluded from an Indigenous-only IT area, seems shoddy at best and reckless at worst.

Liberal backbencher Julian Leeser has put forward suggestions for improving processes at the commission; and even the commission’s controversial president, Gillian Triggs, admits there may be scope for reform.

Asked if she thought the clause could be made stronger by replacing “offend” and “insult” with “vilify”, Professor Triggs said: “I would see that as a strengthening, it could be a very useful thing to do.”

In the meantime, on Wednesday, November 9, Hedley Thomas reported in The Australian that Tony Morris QC, who had been acting for the QUT students, was requiring from Professor Triggs a retraction and an apology, to “make no further ‘defamatory’ comments about the students, and pay damages and costs”.

Professor Triggs had said on the ABC’s 7.30 that, while some cases were vexatious or frivolous, “this was one that had a level of substance”. “The complaints were ones that attracted a certain measure of concern about the nature of the comments that were made,” she said. “I won’t repeat the language but it was worrying and troubling.”

Mr Morris said her statement suggested that the students’ Facebook posts were “so abhorrently racist that it could not with propriety or dignity be repeated on a mid­-evening television program run by the national broadcaster”. He said that the claim that his clients used language of such a racist character that she felt it unseemly to repeat on air was “palpably false”.

Labor is happy to “frame” Mr Turnbull as a stooge of the far right, but there is strong evidence that the act requires some tightening.

The danger for Mr Turnbull is that any tinkering with the Racial Discrimination Act will raise the ire of some ethnic communities, and Labor will be happy to fan the flames.

Ironically, Mr Turnbull may have a chance to stand up for a truly liberal cause – freedom of speech.

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