AUSTRALIA - Australia's new government is set to abolish a longstanding ban on racist and offensive speech in a divisive move that has sparked warnings that the changes could encourage racists.
Attorney-General George Brandis revealed last week his first act of legislation will be to overturn laws banning racial vilification which have been in place for almost two decades. The laws make it illegal to spout racially offensive and insulting speech, though there are exceptions for comments made for an artistic purpose or in the public's interest.
Critics said removing the ban will limit the protection of vulnerable groups such as Aborigines, international students and religious minorities. The move has also been seen as political payback, because the laws were used in a high-profile case against a controversial right-wing columnist, Mr Andrew Bolt, a strong advocate of new Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Legal expert Anna Chapman from Melbourne University said the laws were necessary to prevent and punish racist speech. She said racist incidents had increased in recent years, citing attacks against Indian international students, mainly in Melbourne.
"The legislation sends a message to the general public that racial vilification is unlawful," she told The Straits Times. "There is quite a lot of evidence that racial vilification is an issue in Australia. I would say indigenous people have been victims and then more recently international students."
Laws against racial discrimination were expanded in 1995 to allow people who are offended to take legal action and seek an apology or compensation.
Last year, the federal government's Human Rights Commission, which receives complaints about racial discrimination, received 500 such complaints, up from 477 the previous year.
Recent complaints have involved a website inciting people to yell at Asians and a police officer who yelled derogatory remarks at Aborigines on a bus. Many of the cases are settled by conciliation rather than in court and are resolved with an apology.
However, the laws made national headlines after they were used in 2011 to convict Mr Bolt, an influential television and newspaper commentator.
He was sued by a group of Aborigines after writing articles which claimed light-skinned people who identified themselves as Aboriginal did so for personal profits and extra welfare benefits. The articles had the headlines "It's So Hip To Be Black" and "White Fellas In The Black".
The federal court found Mr Bolt's comments "insulted, humiliated or intimidated" members of the Aboriginal community and ordered his newspaper, The Herald Sun, to publish a correction. But the case angered Mr Abbott, the then opposition leader, and was also criticised by much of the Australian media, which tends to be hostile towards any curbs on free speech.
Mr Brandis revealed last Friday his plan to repeal the laws, which he said are a curb on free speech and fundamental human rights.
The plan was criticised by Aboriginal, Jewish and other minority groups, which said the laws have helped to promote harmony and multiculturalism.
The Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council has warned that abolishing the laws risked "giving succour to racists" while the government-appointed Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said "indifference can allow bigotry to breed".
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.