Race law changes 'misguided'

THE "proud heritage" of Whitlam's Racial Discrimination Act will live on despite a government attempt to water it down, said Whitlam Institute director Eric Sidoti.

Mr Sidoti, who heads the public policy institute at UWS Rydalmere campus which commemorates the work of former prime minister Gough Whitlam, said a draft bill released by the federal government in March would weaken protections against racism in the "watershed" piece of human rights legislation introduced by then prime minister Whitlam in 1975.

"The act itself represents a proud heritage of progressive reform in this country," Mr Sidoti said.

"Gough himself regarded the legislation as absolutely critical. It was one of the highest priorities of his government because he recognised that a modern Australia had to settle the relationships between its peoples.

"It also paved the way for some of those landmark decisions, including the Mabo decision of 1992."

Asked why changes to the act were necessary, Australian Attorney-General George Brandis told the Sun that racial vilification would never be acceptable in Australia, but that "laws which are designed to prohibit racial vilification should not be used as a vehicle to attack legitimate freedom of speech".

But Mr Sidoti described as "misguided" the suggestion that freedom of speech was at stake if the act remained unchanged: "Of course we all want freedom of speech to be protected," he said. "However, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. It's always been qualified, for example in defamation law.

"One of the dangers in removing these protections is people misinterpreting that as condoning bigotry and vilification. So for those who are so inclined, they would see this as a vindication of their views."

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