Minorities meet Brandis to protest weakening of 18C

Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim.

A DELEGATION of ethnic and faith community representatives met with Attorney-General George Brandis on Monday to air its views on plans by the federal government to soften racial vilification laws in the name of freer speech.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) joined delegates from the Greek, Arab, Chinese and indigenous communities for two sessions with Senator Brandis at Parliament House in Canberra.

Sitting in on the parley were the Attorney-General’s chief of staff James Lambie and deputy chief of staff Josh Faulks.

ECAJ executive director Peter Wertheim said a second meeting was called by Brandis who was keen to extend the talks with the community groups after a short initial session, and there are plans for the delegation to meet with the Attorney-General again early next year.

Brandis has frequently stated his intention to do away with Section 18C of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, which outlaws public acts “reasonably likely … to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” and is likely to shift the definition of vilification away from the victim’s perception to a broader test.

The Attorney-General told The AJN last month that “to rebalance the human rights debate in Australia” would be “one of my key priorities”.

After this week’s talks, the delegation issued a statement saying Brandis “appears to be approaching the review of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act with caution” but counselling that a “simplistic, absolutist view of freedom of expression will not solve the problem.

“The law needs to provide also for countervailing freedoms, including freedom from racial vilification. Balancing these competing freedoms is not straightforward. The balance struck by the existing law in Sections 18C and 18D [basically a ‘good-faith’ test for 18C] of the Act was carefully reached after years of national inquiries and debates in Parliament and the general community. Any attempt to restrike that balance is not to be undertaken lightly.”

Wertheim criticised media coverage of the meeting in The Australian and said there was no basis for it reporting that Brandis “has won the cautious approval” of the delegation for the rollback.

PETER KOHN

ECAJ executive director Peter Wertheim.