SYDNEY - The Australian government's plans to water down laws that make it a crime for someone to make racist comments are meeting with growing resistance as a Wednesday deadline looms for the proposed changes.
Draft changes proposed by Attorney-General George Brandis last month are seen as weakening protection against racial vilification.
The current Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for someone to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" another person or group on account of their race or ethnicity.
Mr Brandis wants to, among other things, remove the words "offend, insult and humiliate" and narrow the definition of "intimidate" to mean only fear of physical harm. "Vilify" would be added but would mean inciting of third parties to hatred.
The move has been condemned by ethnic and religious community groups, including representatives of the Chinese, Greek, Muslim, Arab, Aboriginal, Jewish and Armenian communities.
Polls suggest strong support for the present anti- racism laws. A Fairfax-Nielsen poll on April 13 showed 88 per cent of people oppose the changes.
Just 10 per cent think it should be lawful to "offend, insult or humiliate" people because of their race or ethnicity.
And according to media reports yesterday, some members of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's own Liberal Party are secretly defying him and Mr Brandis by drafting alternative proposals.
Sydney's Sun-Herald newspaper said backbench MP David Coleman has the support of at least six other government lawmakers in writing an alternative proposal. The newspaper also claims that Mr Brandis has faced a fierce argument in Cabinet, including opposition from senior figures such as Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Criticism became more vocal after Mr Brandis controversially said in Parliament last month that "people have the right to be bigots you know".
An indigenous MP and fellow member of the ruling Liberal Party, Mr Ken Wyatt, has threatened to "cross the floor" and vote against the changes in Parliament - a move that is rare in Australia.
A coalition of 31 community groups in the state of Victoria released a statement on April 11 condemning the move, saying that freedom of speech was important but it was "not an absolute right".
Indigenous community leader Lez Malezer has been urging people, including ethnic and religious communities, to make submissions and reject the changes.
He said last week that the submissions he has seen "have all been very strong to say that racial vilification is a very damaging thing, that it can cripple the lives of people".
"It doesn't have to be physical harm, it can be by abuse, verbal abuse," he told SBS News.
Media commentator Jonathan Holmes said last week that he believed the current laws were too broad and extended beyond speech that incites hatred to include speech that was merely offensive.
But, he said, the proposed changes went too far and were "ineffably stupid".
"The Act, if these amendments are passed, will only prohibit vilification and intimidation: nothing else," he wrote in Fairfax Media. "So the Racial Discrimination Act, as amended, would go out of its way to make racial vilification and intimidation lawful, so long as they are a part of the public discussion of pretty much anything at all."
The original laws, introduced in 1995 as Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, make it illegal to make racially offensive and insulting speech and allow people to take legal action to demand compensation or an apology.
Defending his "bigots" statement in an interview earlier this month with Britain's online magazine Spiked, Mr Brandis said the proposed changes were necessary to prevent censorship and ensure the state did not try to "tell people what they can think".
"I don't regret saying that because in this debate... somebody had to make the point (about) defending the right to free speech of people with whom you profoundly disagree," he said.
"The best way… for wicked opinions to be exposed for what they are is to get them out in the cold light of day and let there be a contest of ideas," he added.
This article was published on April 28 in The Straits Times.
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