But that doesn’t mean there should be any tolerance for hate speech or language that promoted racial hatred or “anything of that kind”.
“It is a matter that I think needs to have a calm discussion,” the prime minister told Neil Mitchell on 3AW radio on Friday.
Turnbull was responding to calls by former deputy prime minister John Anderson and a Liberal senator for a parliamentary inquiry into Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The section makes it unlawful for someone to commit an act that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity.
It’s under scrutiny after a complaint was made to the Human Rights Commission against cartoonist Bill Leak over his depiction of an Aboriginal man holding a beer can and unable to remember his son’s name.
Anderson wants a “serious, full-blooded debate in this country about the way in which we debate”.
“You can’t get good public policy from a bad or silenced debate,” he wrote in The Australian on Friday.
Liberal senator Dean Smith has urged a parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech in the wake of the Leak complaint and another case involving students at the Queensland University of Technology.
Smith argues the recent increase in high-profile complaints under section 18C had shifted the debate from “theoretical” applications to the “practical experience” of the law.
Turnbull said the government was considering Senator Smith’s call for an inquiry, but acknowledged there was a reasonable argument for having a cool discussion.
Anderson said the Leak complaint was an episode that crystallised for him “the growing belief the West’s greatest challenge was to learn again to talk to one another and listen to one another with civility”.
“Only by properly considering all perspectives can we hope to find the optimal way through the truly confronting array of cultural, economic and strategic challenges confronting us as a nation,” he said.
Turnbull rejected suggestions Leak was a racist, but did describe him as a “controversialist … a very colourful, passionate Australian of enormous artistic ability”.
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