Thursday, March 27, 2014

George Brandis rolled on changes to Racial Discrimination Act

Federal cabinet forced George Brandis to soften his original proposal to loosen constraints on racist insults and hate speech.

In a lengthy cabinet meeting on Monday night - and amid growing backbench concerns - Senator Brandis watered down his proposals for changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Attorney-General was instead obliged to settle for only a draft exposure bill. This allows the government position to remain fluid and community groups to react. The changes proposed to the act in an exposure draft on release to the government party room on Tuesday contained a weakening of Senator Brandis' original proposals.

The outcome represented what one minister described as a compromise between the conservative and moderate factions. One minister said: "George has really drunk the right-wing Kool-Aid."

Another minister said Mr Brandis' original proposal was "much worse" than the agreed text and he had been forced to back down. A third minister present at the meeting said the original bill had been "terrible".

Asked if the cabinet had forced the change from a bill to an exposure draft, that minister said "things are evolving all the time" and that the exposure draft still "needs to be changed quite substantially".

The exposure draft released has proposed section 18C, which makes it unlawful for someone to act in a manner likely to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of their race or ethnicity, would be repealed while section 18D, which provides protections for freedom of speech, will be removed and replaced by a new section.

The changes remove the words "offend, insult and humiliate", leave in "intimidate" and adds the word "vilify" for the first time.

But a  passage  in the exposure draft that exempts words and images "in public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter", has attracted a storm of criticism for being too broad and weakening current protections.

Fairfax Media can also reveal that members of a government legal affairs backbench committee that examined the bill had flagged the need for changes to the bill and for additional consultation.

"Normally these things get rubber stamped," an MP familiar with the process said. "I can't see [the exposure draft] surviving in its current form. And I've got no doubt the legislation will be much better."

Several MPs told Fairfax that indigenous MP Ken Wyatt's warning in the party room two Tuesdays ago that he could cross the floor if changes were not made had been a significant turning point in the development of the legislation.

Aside from Mr Wyatt, Coalition MPs including Victorians  Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood have raised concerns about the changes to the act with Senator Brandis.

A second backbench MP said the proposed changes to the Act, which were prompted by a 2011 legal case involving  News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, had been "going fine until George made his bigot comment, which completely inflamed the situation".

Senator Brandis  said this week that "people do have a right to be bigots, you know."

The government has promised to consult on the exposure draft of the bill until April 30. A spokesman for Senator Brandis declined to comment on cabinet discussions.


Give people right to free speech, says Sue Gordon

INDIGENOUS leader Sue Gordon, the retired magistrate who led the Northern Territory intervention, has backed the Abbott government’s changes to racial discrimination laws, arguing the suppression of racism only makes it worse, driving it underground.

The former head of John Howard’s indigenous council has taken a very different view from Warren Mundine, the head of Tony Abbott’s indigenous council, who yesterday told The Australian the race changes were outrageous and retrograde.

Dr Gordon said the repression of free speech was damaging to race relations and she agreed with Attorney-General George Brandis that people had the right to be bigots. “I think sometimes there is too much emotion in this topic and people need to just look at it calmly,” she said.

“I agree with what Brandis said. People do have a right in this country, you can’t suppress everything.”

Dr Gordon was backed by Anthony Dillon, a researcher at the Australian Catholic University who identifies as a part-Aboriginal Australian. In an article in The Australian today, he writes that political correctness has gone overboard.

“Political correctness, with regard to people who identify as Aboriginal Australians, has reached the ridiculous stage where one can be accused of being racist simply by questioning the motives of some people who identify as being Aboriginal,” Mr Dillon says.

The comments came as debate raged over the Abbott government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Senator Brandis has released a draft of proposed changes that scrap Section 18C, the provision which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate other people or groups of people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

The move has won crucial crossbench support in the new Senate to sit from July 1, with key players flagging they are prepared to back changes to the government’s Racial Discrimination Act.

As Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said she did not believe “there’s anyone in Australia who agrees” with the changes, senators-elect Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm revealed they supported moves to protect free speech. However, the parliament’s first indigenous female MP, Senator Nova Peris yesterday condemned Senator Brandis for saying “people had the right to be bigots”.

But Dr Gordon said it was “the nature of the country that we have”. “We are not a communist country, we have free speech and if we start picking things off to suppress individuals, well it gets worse it goes more underground,” she said. Without free speech people just “take to social media and make it worse”.

“This has got nothing to do with Andrew Bolt’s case, his article was quite inflammatory, but he was expressing an opinion which a lot of people have suppressed themselves So these things still exist,” Dr Gordon said.

“I just don’t like the idea of suppressing our country even further. I know people will be cross at me saying that but you have to stand back and look at things with a bit of a clear vision.”

She said racism was always going to rear its ugly head.  “There will always be a class of people who will promote and continue racism,” she said. “I mean you just have to look at the march for March, that is one of the classic examples.”

Fraser government minister for Aboriginal affairs and founding co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia, Fred Chaney, said the government was making a mistake.

“I hope the government will heed the views of the indigenous, Jewish and other communities who daily live with the brutal realities of racism,” the 72-year-old former Australian of the Year said.

“It is difficult for well-educated Anglo Australians of whom I am one to comprehend the realities minorities face on a daily basis. At every stage of my life I have witnessed the destructive impact of the abuse of free speech on vulnerable people. Government should be cautious about licensing overt bigotry”.


Electoral committee push for mandatory business votes in City of Sydney elections

Get rid of the Green fruitcake

Businesses in the City of Sydney would be forced to vote in council elections under recommendations by a parliamentary inquiry that threaten the primacy of Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore.

A joint committee into electoral matters, dominated by Coalition and Shooters Party MPs, pushed for the measure in a draft report obtained by Fairfax Media.

The report says the government should adopt the model used by the City of Melbourne in which landlords, business owners, corporations and other non-residents must vote in council elections. The report said the model should also be considered for other council areas with sizeable economic centres such as Newcastle, Wollongong and Parramatta.

Presently in the City of Sydney, non-residents can choose to vote, but their enrolment lapses after each election and participation rates are poor. Businesses are often unaware they have voting rights.

If the model was adopted in Sydney, it would mean a flood of new business electors at the 2016 council poll, potentially boosting the conservative vote and shrinking support for Cr Moore and her progressive agenda.

The City of Sydney says there are about 80,000 individuals and businesses eligible for the non-residential roll. However just 1700 were enrolled at the last council election, compared to about 100,000 residential voters.

Under the Melbourne model, a business owner is entitled to two votes and the landlord of their building also gets two votes.

Someone who is both a resident and business owner cannot vote twice.

The council consists of four independents aligned to Cr Moore, a Greens and a Labor councillor, plus two Liberals and a business-leaning independent.

The inquiry, chaired by Liberal MP Gareth Ward, said the council derives almost 80 per cent of ratepayer revenue from business and their electoral participation should be increased.

The concept already has Liberal Party support. NSW Liberal Party state director Mark Needham told the inquiry that the "collapse" of non-resident voter rates across the state, particularly in the City of Sydney, had "effectively disenfranchised an important voting community". He called for compulsory non-resident enrolment.

Sydney Business Chamber executive director Patricia Forsythe said the council "works well with business" but added "business is so important in the income of the city that it should be a stronger voice on the council".

Opponents such as the Greens say business groups have enough sway over local affairs and only residents should be allowed to vote.

Cr Moore said the council spent $215,000 last year on an awareness campaign encouraging businesses to vote. She said the Melbourne model would be costly to administer and potentially inaccurate, and people who are not Australian citizens would be allowed to vote.

Mr Ward said rather than spending money encouraging non-residents to vote, there was an argument for making business voting compulsory. The committee is due to finalise its report on Thursday.


Left live in their own bubble

The official biographies of the background of the federal member for Franklin, Julie Collins, are sketchy. The ALP website, for instance, says merely that she "completed a Business Administration Certificate at TAFE before taking on numerous administrative roles from the age of 16". Those various roles, including personal assistant, were mainly for Labor politicians in Hobart. Now she is shadow minister for regional development and local government in the federal Parliament.

Anyone watching the proceedings of Parliament on Wednesday, during which Collins was thrown out by the speaker for impersonating a schoolgirl chortling and sledging in class, may be struck by the way the political class is increasingly divorced from reality. It applies to all parties but is stark in the current insular model of the ALP, which lost last year's federal election, just lost office in Tasmania, just lost its majority in South Australia, was smashed in the last NSW election, was smashed in the last Queensland election and lost office in the last Victorian election. It even lost its majority in the ACT in 2012.

It's been the same for the Greens, with a series of heavy defeats in federal, state and local government elections, including a disaster in one of its strongholds, Canberra, where it lost three of its four seats in the 2012 ACT Legislative Assembly elections.

Yet none of these clear messages from the electorate appears to have made a scintilla of difference to either of the parties pummelled by the voters. We know they care deeply about losing, because Labor and the Greens desperately need control of the public sector to service their bases, but it appears increasingly and depressingly obvious they are terminally inward-looking, and preoccupied with tactical skirmishing and scorched earth rejectionism.

What is encouraging this divorce from the consequences of their actions is the echo chamber created by social media. We are constantly being told the "mainstream media" is doomed and will eventually be destroyed by an insurrection on social media.

This, too, is divorced from reality because while newspapers are navigating a turbulent shift in their business models, the major mastheads are attracting more readers than ever before, thanks to the same forces causing the turbulence. According to the latest industry figures, The Sydney Morning Herald has the largest total audience of any masthead in Australia, with 4.8 million readers a month across print, web, tablet and mobile. Subscriptions of the major Fairfax mastheads - from people who pay for the print, online or tablet editions - are growing robustly and are at or near record levels.

Yet there is incessant noise that the major media is being pushed to the sidelines. What may be happening is that people are increasingly existing in their own info-bubbles, having set filters for news and views with which they are in furious agreement.

Here, too, the tenor of politics is going backwards. The street-marchers on the left complained last week that the mainstream media basically ignored their "march in March", but the major media have never been interested in student politics or the collective personality disorders of the permanently enraged political fringe.

Some politicians play to this fringe, now that it is so easy to do via Facebook and Twitter. On Monday, my column ran under the headline "King of the trolls", referring to the Greens Senator from Western Australia, Scott Ludlam.

The great thing about trolls is they have no sense of irony. They can never, ever see the bigotry in their own shrillness. Occasionally I like to remind the trolls they are cowardly anonymous scum or tell the angry ants they have anger-management issues.


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