Turnbull Looks to Change Hate Crime Laws in Appeal to Right Wing

  • Will need minor party support in unruly Senate to pass laws
  • Trade Minister Ciobo says Aussies care more about jobs, wages

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull moved to overhaul Australia’s race-hate laws, heeding calls from right-wing lawmakers despite criticism from other members of his ruling coalition who see the issue as a distraction.

Under the proposed changes announced by Turnbull on Tuesday, the word “harass” will replace “offend, insult, humiliate” in clause 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which currently makes it it unlawful to act in such a way towards another person.

“We are defending Australians from racial vilification by replacing language which has lost credibility,” Turnbull told reporters. In a statement, he said the changes would strengthen the laws and allow authorities to more easily reject complaints without merit.

Turnbull’s push threatens to provoke a fight in the legislature ahead of a crucial May budget aimed at maintaining the country’s valuable AAA rating. The move also risks adding to perceptions that the ruling party’s conservative wing has pulled the former Goldman Sachs banker away from socially progressive causes that he supported before taking office 18 months ago, including same-sex marriage and climate change.

With the opposition rejecting any changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, Turnbull will need the support of minor party senators to push the legislation through the country’s upper house. The move may give ammunition to Turnbull’s critics, who say his policy agenda is being held hostage by the coalition’s powerful right-wing.

Noisy Conservatives

“For the prime minister to claim that this is a strengthening of the law is simply nonsense,” shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told reporters in Canberra after Turnbull’s announcement. “It is a betrayal of Australia’s multicultural communities.”

“Turnbull obviously believes this is something that is seriously dividing his party and he needs to resolve it,” said Nick Economou, a professor at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry in Melbourne. “He’s probably reasoning that while his own hard-line conservatives remain noisy, it undermines his ability to sell the idea of a united front.”

After Turnbull’s coalition narrowly won last year’s general election, he said the government had “no plans” to change the discrimination law. “We have other, much more pressing priorities to address and they include big economic reforms,” he said at the time.

Turnbull said on Tuesday the current laws had a “chilling effect on free speech,” adding that he had changed his stance since the election because of subsequent cases that had been brought before the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Earlier, Trade Minister Steven Ciobo backed Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce who told reporters Monday that his constituents weren’t focused on the race law.

“These are not the issues that I believe Australians focus on,” Ciobo told Sky Television on Tuesday. “You know what Aussies care about: they want to know about their job security, they want to know about their wages, they want to know about their ability for their kids to get a good education.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.