Inquiry Launched into Freedom of Speech
8 November 2016 at 5:28 pm
A parliamentary inquiry has been set up to examine freedom of speech, including possible changes to sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s complaints-handling process.
Attorney-General George Brandis confirmed on Tuesday the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights would investigate the two issues with the aim of receiving a report at the end of February 2017 on potential reforms.
Brandis said, among other things, the committee would examine whether the existing processes of the commission were sufficient to ensure that “trivial or vexatious complaints”, and complaints which had “no reasonable prospects of success”, were identified and dismissed at an early stage.
“It will also examine ways to ensure that complaints are dealt with in an open and transparent way, without unreasonable delay, and in a manner which ensures those subject to complaints are afforded natural justice,” Brandis said.
“It is important that Australia strikes the right balance between laws which protect social harmony and mutual respect, and the fundamental democratic value of freedom of speech. The purpose of the inquiry is to ensure that we have that balance right.
“Equally, it is important that the machinery for human rights protection in Australia operates in such a way as to ensure procedural fairness, and that it cannot be used as a vehicle for vexatious complaints.”
The latest move comes amid a public war of words between Malcolm Turnbull and the Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, after a racial discrimination complaint against three Queensland University of Technology students was thrown out by a Federal Circuit Court judge.
On Monday, Turnbull called on the commission to review the way it managed race hate cases.
“What the judge was saying to the Human Rights Commission is, ‘you’ve been wasting the court’s time, you’ve been wasting government money’,” Turnbull told the ABC.
In response Triggs accused the prime minister of being “deeply misleading” and said the commission had no power to instigate court proceedings.
She also revealed she had been urging the government to introduce a higher threshold before the commission was obliged to investigate hate speech complaints.
Speaking on Tuesday, Triggs said she would welcome an inquiry.
She also backed calls to reform section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act by replacing the words “offend” and “insult” with “vilify”.
“There’s always ambiguity about what you mean by offending and insulting,” she told the ABC.
“The bar for the federal circuit court and general federal court has always been very high on this question. No mere slight will constitute a breach of 18C (but) the way the commission deals with matters is at a much lower level and that is why we’d like to see reform there.
“We’re open to seeing what the inquiry might suggest — whether the language could be clarified and in our view strengthened that enables us to support the multicultural society that we are.”
The inquiry will be chaired by Liberal MP Ian Goodenough.