Changes to racial vilification laws a backwards step

The Australian Government should not proceed with proposed changes to racial vilification laws, the Human Rights Law Centre has recommended in its submission to the public consultation process on proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

The HRLC’s Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, said the changes proposed by Attorney General, George Brandis, would almost effectively abolish the current Federal legal protections against racial vilification and would send an appalling signal about the Government's views on racial tolerance.

“Proceeding with these changes, against strong community opposition, would be a significant backward step for race relations in Australia. Racial vilification can cause serious harm to individuals and society. Racial vilification and hate speech increases the risk of racially motivated violence and needs to be actively combatted,” said HRLC Executive Director Hugh de Kretser. 

Under the proposed changes, the words “offend, insult and humiliate” would be deleted from the existing laws. “Vilify” would be inserted but narrowly defined and the existing protection against “intimidation” would also be given a new narrow definition.

The existing free speech exemptions for fair comment, fair reporting and artistic and scientific works would be greatly expanded with a catch-all exemption for “public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.” Notably, the requirements for “reasonableness” and “good faith” in the exemption would also be removed.

“It’s hard to imagine any racial topic that would be outside the realms of this extraordinarily broad exemption for public discussion. Anyone with a blog, megaphone or twitter account will be given a green light to promote racist bigotry and hatred,” said Mr de Kretser.

Mr de Kretser said the Attorney General’s claim that the proposed laws would provide the strongest ever protection against racism under Federal legislation was plainly wrong.

Although opposing the proposed changes, the HRLC has outlined how the worst aspects of the Exposure Draft could be mitigated. If the Government decides to push ahead with changing the laws, the submission recommends giving the words “intimidate” and “vilify” their ordinary meaning; reinserting “reasonableness”, “good faith” and “public interest” requirements in the exemption; ensuring the community standards test requires some consideration of the impact on the relevant racial group affected by the conduct; and retaining sections 18B and 18E.

The HRLC has called on the Government to make all submissions to the consultation public (unless a person or organisation requests otherwise).

A copy of the HRLC's submission can be found here.

An Information Paper on the proposed changes can be found here

More resources including a fact sheet on the Andrew Bolt case are here.

For further details and comments, please contact: HRLC Executive Director Hugh de Kretser on 0403 965 340 or