Changes to the to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act were defeated in the Senate on Thursday 30 March but it’s threat continues to lurk in the shadows of the government.
The defeat came as Labor, the Greens and crossbenchers, including Nick Xenophon and the Tasmanian Independent Jacqui Lambie all voted down the changes.
Attorney General Senator George Brandis who, a few years ago, defended the right to be a bigot, called the defeat of the change, which would have made it lawful to offend, insult and intimidate others on the basis of race, a “sad day.”
Liberal senator James Paterson told Fairfax Media “I strongly suspect we’ll be back here debating this issue again” signalling that for the conservatives in government, this is not the end of the affair.
The defeat came a day after Federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, expressed his and the Labor Party’s commitment to the current legislation.
In a briefing held at Parliament House on Wednesday 29 March, Mr Shorten gathered the press and members of the multicultural community in Canberra to make clear that the Labor Party will continue to fight to ensure that the changes are never accepted and attacked the government’s lack of empathy over the issue.
“It is easy to dismiss a hurt they will never feel,” said Mr Shorten.
He added that being a good Australian “has nothing to do with how long you have been here . . . it has everything to do with what is in your heart.
“There is no freedom of speech crisis in this country,” he pointed out.
“The Labor Party will not retreat on this issue and we will be successful,” he added – predicting the defeat of the changes in the Senate on Thursday.
Shadow Attorney-General, MP Mark Dreyfus added that the Labor Party will seek to “ensure that the line is drawn against racist hate speech in our country continues to be the line that we draw against racist hate speech.”
Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia, MP Tony Burke, whose electorate of Watson includes a large Muslim population, also gave his commitment to the current wording of Section 18C.
“The Labor Party will stand together with you against racism and hate speech,” he stressed.
Referring to the Walk for Respect on Friday 31 March he asked the community to send the message to the Australian government that “they should not keep coming back with (this change).”
“Allowing higher level of racism must never be a priority for this parliament.”
Senator Pat Dodson, Shadow Assistant Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, was welcomed with thunderous applause from the gathering.
“We are going to hold on to the high value that has been established,” he said.
“And that is the diversity and the difference and the uniqueness that we all bring to this nation today to make it great,” he emphasised.