Whitlam's race hate laws 'watered down'

The ‘‘proud heritage’’ of Gough Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act will live on regardless of a government attempt to water it down, says Whitlam Institute director Eric Sidoti.

Mr Sidoti, who heads the public policy body at UWS Rydalmere campus which commemorates the work of the former prime minister, said protections against racism in the “watershed” piece of human rights law would be weakened if a government Bill to amend it is passed.

‘‘The Act itself represents a proud heritage of progressive reform in this country,’’ Mr Sidoti said of the law introduced by Prime Minister Whitlam in 1975 

‘‘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.’’

Mr Sidoti said while it was appropriate any piece of legislation evolved, he understood the reactions of migrant groups who have condemned the Bill.

"It's quite understandable that a number of those who are very directly affected by this are perplexed and somewhat disturbed at the proposal of having the racial vilification aspects being watered down," he said.

Australian Attorney-General George Brandis said the exposure draft represents the government's thinking but that it is "very open to other suggestions".

"The government welcomes community feedback and encourages people to make submissions," Senator Brandis said.

Asked why the changes were necessary, Senator Brandis told the Sun that while racial vilification would never be acceptable in Australia, ‘‘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 freedom of speech was at stake if the Act remained unchanged: “Of course we all want freedom of speech to be protected. However freedom of speech is not an absolute right, it’s always been qualified, for example in defamation law,’’ he said.

"The critical issue here of course is what, if any, negative impact has arisen from the Act to require change? There's no real evidence to suggest that it's had a detrimental effect on this country. And the positive impact is that when people feel aggrieved, they have a conciliatory process available to them.

‘‘One of the dangers in removing these protections is people misinterpreting that as condoning bigotry and vilification. So for those who are so inclined, it’s I would say to be expected that they would see this as a vindication of their views... That’s a danger that should not be underestimated.’’

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