Concern over Abbott’s hate-law proposal

Tony Abbott speaking at 2011 UIA Gala Dinner. Photo: Peter Haskin

AN announcement by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that a Coalition government would repeal the Racial Hatred Act has taken the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) “by surprise”.

ECAJ executive director Peter Wertheim has asked for a meeting with Abbott to clarify his intentions regarding the anti-vilification law.

In a speech to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Sydney on Monday, Abbott signalled that as prime minister, he would seek to scrap Section 18C of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act and replace it with legislation more closely based on common-law incitement. Section 18C, also known as the Racial Hatred Act of 1995, stipulates it is unlawful to publicly act in a way “reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people because of “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

Abbott said in his speech: “Let’s be clear: insulting, humiliating or intimidating others on any grounds, racial or otherwise, is deplorable. It should be everyone’s goal to elevate the standards of public debate, not lower them, and to demonstrate respect rather than disdain for the various components of our community. Still, a ‘hurt feelings’ test is impossible to comply with while maintaining the fearless pursuit of truth, which should be the hallmark of a society such as ours.”

Abbott said the Coalition “will repeal section 18C in its current form. Any prohibitions on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups should be akin to the ancient common law offences of incitement and causing fear”.

Wertheim told The AJN: “Tony Abbott’s announcement took us by surprise. I have sought a meeting with the Opposition Leader and shadow attorney-general to try to clarify the details of the Opposition’s policy before commenting further”.

The government quickly condemned Abbott’s plans, with a spokesperson for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon saying Section 18C provided protection for the vulnerable. “This legislation also helps to protect the community against those who advocate violence on the basis of race.’’

Melbourne Ports MP Michael Danby warned the Coalition leader’s proposals “might give the green light to bigoted groups like the LaRouchites and Adelaide Institute. The reason the Australian Jewish community and many others fought for these laws was that racial hatred from these elements was getting out of hand.”

The government slammed Abbott, saying key court decisions against anti-Semitism would not have been possible without the current laws.

Jeremy Jones, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council’s director of community affairs, told The AJN this week: “There’s nothing to say that you can’t review any piece of legislation to make it as good as possible, but victims of racial hatred and vilification should have recourse – and that is currently provided by this Act.”

PETER KOHN

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

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