Labor frontbencher Jim Chalmers has defended Bill Shorten’s efforts to rally ethnic communities against changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, dismissing calls for change as an “obsession of the far right of the Liberal Party”.

The Opposition Leader has written an article for several newspapers covering Arabic, Jewish, Chinese Indian and other communities and instigated a petition against the change.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus will tomorrow meet a group of community leaders to hear their concerns.

Dr Chalmers said that when the “far right of the Liberal Party” led, Malcolm Turnbull meekly followed.

“Bill Shorten is showing the leadership that Malcolm Turnbull should be showing by reassuring our multicultural communities around the country that we will stand up for them, that now is a time for more respect and more understanding, not less,” he told Sky News.

“We shouldn’t be marching to the tune of the far right of the Liberal Party when it comes to this issue, like Malcolm Turnbull is.”

Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs Zed Seselja accused Labor of hypocrisy.

“I think he is playing to xenophobia a fair bit at the moment instead of having a sensible debate about things like 457s and at the same time he’s going and whipping up a fear campaign around 18C,” he said.

Senator Seselja said 18C would be looked at by a parliamentary committee, which was appropriate.

“I get this issue,” he said.

“I get it reasonably well. I understand people with names like mine were often called all sorts of names in years gone by and I think we’ve largely put that behind us though not completely.”

Harmony or division in 18C?

Senator Seselja raised the example of The Australian’s cartoonist Bill Leak, who faced a Human Rights Commission investigation over a cartoon in which he depicted an indigenous police officer asking an indigenous father to discipline a child whose name he did not appear to know.

“The question that the committee will obviously look at is: is dragging a cartoonist before the Human Rights Commission going to deliver harmony to the community or not? Or is it going to further divide us?” Senator Seselja said.

“Those are some of the questions that you need to look at.

“You can be very strong on racial hatred, opposing it, you can be very strong against hate speech, but you can legitimately ask a question and that’s what the committee will be doing.”

Senator Seselja acknowledged that some of his colleagues, including southwestern Sydney MP David Coleman, did not believe the case had been made for changing 18C.

“There’s a variety of views in our party as there is in the community on this,” he said.

“That’s why it’s good that the committee looks at it and hears from the community about it and they will be looking at is the threshold right?

“Is a uni student being dragged before the Human Rights Commission for a Facebook post, is that a good idea?” Senator Seselja said, referring to a group of Queensland University Students sued under 18C as a result of objections they made on social media to being kicked out of a computer room set aside for the exclusive use of indigenous students.

“From a process point of view, if we look at some of the processes within the Human Rights Commission, I was quite disturbed by some of the reports of I guess go away money where students were having to pay $5000 in order to not have a claim coming,” Senator Seselja said.

“I think that sort of stuff is quite concerning, and I hope that the committee will look at those kind of aspects as well.”

Senator Seselja said the committee should look at the processes of the Human Rights Commission as well as whether the good faith exemptions in Section 18D sufficiently mitigate against excesses in 18C.

“I think the processes have been very poor,” he said.

“I think in the QUT case it looks like it was a very poor process.

“There is a question mark when you look at say a cartoonist. Should a cartoonist have to go and justify their cartoon, I suppose, to say, well look, it fits under 18D. I think that’s a very fair question to ask.

“My family were locked up for what they said back in the former Yugoslavia. I saw an interesting article from Peter Greste today who was also locked up for his views and for what he said.

“I think issues of free speech are important and I think that’s why it’s really important that it’s a rational debate and that the committee looks at all of those views, and there are differing views in the community, and that’s legitimate.”

‘No tears for Triggs’

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday revealed Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs would not have her contract renewed next year.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he would not be sorry to see her go.

“I don’t want to give too much away, Ray, but it is true that I didn’t have to wipe a tear away,” Mr Dutton told 2GB’s Ray Hadley.

“I think anyone who’s watched this pretty closely realises that as you say, I’ve had a bit to say about it and you might hear in my voice that I’m not losing much sleep.

“These are high offices and they need to be treated with respect. People are paid a lot of money.

“This lady was appointed by the Labor Party and I just think there’s a lot of damage and disservice done to these offices.

“I think that Australians are sick of this politically correct nonsense.”

Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said the move to change 18C was a campaign from the right wing of the Liberaly party to say that it was important for people to be able to use race hate speech more broadly in the Australian community.

“Not so long ago Malcolm Turnbull was saying this was not a priority for change,” Ms Plibersek said.

“Now, suddenly it is the only thing on the Liberals’ agenda.

“I do not see how the changes they are proposing would create a single extra job. We have seen 100,000 full-time jobs lost since the beginning of the year. Does changing the race discrimination act fix that?

“This is a distraction. It is driven by the hard right of the Liberal Party and Malcolm Turnbull should stand up to them and get on with actually governing the country in a way that creates jobs and strengthens the economy.”