Under the changes approved at a joint partyroom meeting in Canberra today the words “offend, insult and humiliate” will be changed to “harass and intimidate”, making claims harder to prove.
The test to be applied in complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission will be the standard of a “reasonable member of the community”.
The commission will also have greater powers to filter complaints which are deemed to be frivolous or without merit and those who are the subject of the complaint will get an early warning a complaint has been lodged.
Assistant minister to the prime minister James McGrath, said the changes got the balance right.
“Freedom of speech is everything,” McGrath wrote on his Facebook site shortly after the partyroom meeting.
Another staunch supporter of the changes, Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz, said the regulator of free speech had been “out of control” for years and turned into “self-appointed thought police”.
“These common-sense reforms will go a long way to ensuring that Australians can engage in free speech while maintaining protections against racially motivated harassment and intimidation,” Abetz said.
A parliamentary inquiry report called for the AHRC to more rigorously assess complaints, a move welcomed by commission president Gillian Triggs who believes the threshold for complaints is too low.
Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said ordinary Australians who had seen their wages cut or stagnate and seen cuts to family tax benefits would be wondering how the government was so out of touch.
“We’ve got a law that is working well to protect people from racial hate speech – why don’t we just leave it alone and actually focus on what makes a difference to people’s lives,” Plibersek told reporters in Canberra.
Labor MP Madeline King described the government as “masters of timing, giving the gift of irony” on Harmony Day, which is being celebrated internationally to promote cultural, racial and religious respect.
Less than four per cent of complaints to the AHRC related to section 18C and fewer than four cases progressed to court each year.
Australian Conservatives senator Cory Bernardi claimed the death of cartoonist Bill Leak had prompted the government to act.
“Why is it that we had to have someone sacrificed at the altar of political correctness to prompt a government to do something worthwhile,” he asked.
The changes will need to run the gauntlet of the Senate, where the government will need nine out of 11 crossbench votes to succeed.
Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon supports a change to the investigation processes used by the AHRC, but doubts a re-wording of Section 18C will get through parliament.
Greens senator Nick McKim said making changes to 18C was exactly what multicultural Australia had asked the prime minister not to do.
“This is time for Malcolm Turnbull to take a stand against One Nation and against the right wing fundamentalists in his political party,” he said.
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