Right exists to be bigots, debate on Australia racism Act hears

People have right to say offensive, insulting or bigoted things, says attorney general

Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, backed a comment by attorney general George Brandis that people have “a right to be bigots”. Photograph: Daniel Munoz/ EPA

Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, backed a comment by attorney general George Brandis that people have “a right to be bigots”. Photograph: Daniel Munoz/ EPA

Sat, Mar 29, 2014, 01:00

In a debate on repealing part of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, attorney general George Brandis has told parliament that people have “a right to be bigots”.

The Liberal-National government has promised to remove section 18C of the Act, which makes it unlawful for someone to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or a group of people.

“People do have a right to be bigots you know,” Mr Brandis said, responding to a question from opposition Labor senator Nova Peris, who is Aboriginal.

“In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

In a joint statement, representatives of the Aboriginal, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities vowed to campaign against amendments that would “license the public humiliation of people because of their race”.

The background to the current debate goes back to 2011, when News Corp newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt was found to have broken the law over two articles he wrote in 2009 about light-skinned people who identify as Aboriginal.

Judge Mordecai Bromberg found Bolt’s articles would have offended a reasonable member of the Aboriginal community, that he had not written them in good faith and that there were factual errors. Bolt said it was “a terrible day for free speech in this country”.

Mr Brandis says an amendment to the Racial Discrimination Act “will ensure that can never happen in Australia again”.

Prime minister Tony Abbott has backed Mr Brandis’s comments, saying Australia should “be a nation where freedom of speech is enjoyed. And sometimes . . . free speech will be speech which upsets people, which offends people”.

An Aboriginal Liberal MP, Ken Wyatt, has threatened to cross the floor and vote against the government on the repeal, but the party’s only Jewish MP, Josh Frydenberg, is backing its removal.

Labor’s shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus, who is also Jewish, condemned Mr Brandis’s comments as giving the “green light to racist hate speech”.

“Tony Abbott and Senator Brandis have shown they’re not prepared to listen to community groups, experts, or their own MPs, who vigorously oppose the watering down of legal protections against racism,” he said.

Mr Dreyfus said the law should remain unchanged as it had served the community well since being introduced by a Labor government 19 years ago.