Removing 18C would send worst possible message: Jewish community leader

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One of Australia’s leading members of the Jewish community has described any attempt to water down the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) as a government signal that the public promotion of racism would be tolerated.

Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said if the Coalition backed a bill by Liberal senator Cory Bernardi to remove “offend” and “insult” from section 18C of the RDA, it would be the worst possible message.

“The removal of the words ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from section 18C would send a signal from government that the public promotion of racism will be tolerated in Australia and will no longer be considered to violate community standards,” Wertheim told Guardian Australia.

“That would be the worst possible message to send at a time of increasing fear, insecurity and polarisation.

“It would be a serious abrogation of principled leadership by government.”

Dissident Liberal senator, Cory Bernardi, has declared he will re-introduce a bill to remove the words “insult” and “offend” from the Racial Discrimination Act when parliament returns at the end of August.

Wertheim also voiced concerns that if a bill passed, opponents of 18C could go further, removing the section altogether.

“It is also clear from the comments of some opponents of section 18C that the removal of “offend” and “insult” would only be a preliminary step towards the wholesale repeal of section 18C and related sections of the Act,” Wertheim said.

“The idea that vulnerable people should be left without any legal remedy to defend themselves against the most serious cases of racist denigration is repugnant to the principle of a fair go.”

The move will reignite a difficult debate in the Coalition party room in Malcolm Turnbull’s first parliamentary week since winning his narrow election victory.

In the past week, a number of Coalition backbenchers have spoken out about the need to revive changes to the act, which were first promised by Tony Abbott ahead of the 2013 election.

The changes were dropped after widespread opposition. At the time, Abbott said the reforms needed to be dropped to preserve “national unity” as the government planned wider security legislation in response to the global terrorism threat.

Bernardi, who has been a regular critic of the Turnbull leadership, said section 18c of the RDA needed to change because it was “Orwellian”.

“While some want to abolish [18C] in its entirety, a good start would be to remove the words ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from the act,” Bernardi wrote in his weekly newsletter.

“This has even drawn strong support from across the political divide. In the last parliament a bill to this effect (which I co-sponsored) was introduced but was never voted upon.

“It’s time for that to change. In the first week back in parliament I’ll be reintroducing the same bill with the expectation that this parliament will finally get a vote and expose very clearly who among your elected representatives is interested in protecting our freedoms and way of life.

“It will also indicate those who have been captured by and surrendered to Orwell’s frightening vision characterised in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

The assistant agriculture minister Anne Ruston agreed in her weekly newsletter that “some of the words in this section should probably go, at least”.

“‘Offend’, ‘insult’, and ‘humiliate’ are highly subjective terms open to all manner of interpretations. Laws governing our behaviour towards others should be objective in their working as possible.”

The comments come after senator James Patterson said on Monday the senate was only “one or two votes away” from a passing a bill to remove “offend” and “insult” from the section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.

A number of Liberal sources told Guardian Australia that if a bill to remove the words “insult” and “offend” were put to the Coalition partyroom, it would win majority support. The Bernardi bill will present a challenge for the Coalition, which will have to decide whether to allow the bill to go to the floor of the senate for debate.

The attorney general, George Brandis, who when selling the original reforms saideveryone had the right to be a bigot, has since consistently said that any change is off the table.

The issue is building again for a number of reasons. The election of One Nation senators who support the change has emboldened Coalition senators in favour of changing the act.

And senator David Leyonhjelm has launched a discrimination complaint over an opinion article describing him as an “angry white male”, saying it shows why the race speech law is absurd and needs to be repealed.

While One Nation’s four senators would support any bill to water down 18C, Nick Xenophon, who has three votes in the senate, is against any attempts. Of the remaining senators, Derryn Hinch of the Justice Party and Bob Day of Family First support the changes, while Jacqui Lambie is against.

Bill Shorten has called on Turnbull to confirm whether he did a deal with the right wing of the party to change 18c, after an unsourced report in the Daily Telegraph.

“Did Mr Turnbull do a deal with his own right wing to undermine protections against hate speech or not? “ Shorten said.  The prime minister’s office had no comment.

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