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PC culture ‘muzzling free speech’, says poll


Ian Goodenough says resources should be directed at stopping material racial discrimination and serious conduct resulting in harm

Australians are resentful of a culture of political correctness preventing people expressing opinions on sensitive cultural ­issues, says the chairman leading the parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech, as a new poll reveals increasing support to ­remove the words “insult” and “offend” from controversial section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Liberal MP Ian Goodenough, a migrant of Eurasian heritage who is heading the inquiry ordered by Malcolm Turnbull, said his objective was to simplify the law to protect ethnic and racial minorities while preventing “reverse discrimination” against mainstream Australians.

Mr Goodenough said resources should be directed at stopping material racial discrimination and serious conduct resulting in harm, violence or incitement to violent acts and “not cartoons and trivial matters”.

“What we are trying to achieve is to protect ethnic and racial groups from harm and detriment but it is not the role of government to police petty social misdemeanours,” Mr Goodenough told The Australian.

The committee has received more than 11,000 written submissions and is this week conducting hearings in five capital cities. Today in Melbourne it will be given polling by Galaxy Research commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs showing rising public support for changes to counter criticism that the campaign is a niche or fringe issue.

The poll of 1000 people taken last month shows 48 per cent approve of calls to remove the words “insult’ and “offend” from section 18C, an increase of three points from the previous survey in ­November.

Some 36 per cent of people were opposed to the change, down from 38 per cent. The Galaxy Poll found 52 per cent of men approved of the change to remove the words compared with 44 per cent of women.

Section 18C makes it unlawful to behave in a way that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, ­humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity. Among the states, support was strongest in Western Australia where 54 per cent were in favour and in NSW where 50 per cent agreed while 49 per cent approved in Queensland. Support was weakest in Victoria and South Australia where 43 per cent agreed with the change, although it remained higher than the number who disapproved.

The change was most embraced by people aged over 50 with 53 per cent in support and those aged 25 to 49 were also more likely to approve than disapprove. However, people aged 18 to 24 were the strongest opponents with 49 per cent against the change, with only 39 per cent in support.

"IPA director of policy Simon Breheny said the poll also showed that 95 per cent of Australians rated freedom of speech as important with 57 per cent saying it was very important.

“Much to the surprise of some members of the media and the political class, free speech matters,” Mr Breheny said.

“It is time for our elected representatives to listen rather than trying to tell the public it is a niche or fringe issue.

“On top of the incredible overwhelming support for freedom of speech, support is also growing for changes to be made to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act so that it is no longer unlawful to insult or offend someone.”

Section 18C was used successfully in a legal action against Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt and unsuccessfully against three Queensland University of Technology students. A Newspoll last year found 57 per cent of people opposed the action against the QUT students. Complaints against a cartoon by The Australian’s Bill Leak were dropped.

The Prime Minister asked the parliament’s human rights committee to look at whether the ­Racial Discrimination Act and section 18C imposes unreasonable limits on free speech and to recommend whether the law should be changed and the role of the Human Rights Commission altered.

Mr Goodenough said 20 years had elapsed since section 18C was introduced and the ­inquiry was about allowing constructive criticism and facilitating robust debate of sensitive cultural issues and for disputes to be settled with minimal impact from the referee in a manner that was affordable and timely.

“It is misleading to say that reforms to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act will promote race hate speech, because there are already laws in place which prevent abusive or threatening speech,” he said. “Many mainstream Australians are resentful of the emerging culture of political correctness, which prevents them from expressing their opinions on certain sensitive cultural issues in workplace and social settings where minorities are ­involved.

“Anecdotally, there is a perception that certain ethnic minorities are afforded greater protections from constructive criticism than mainstream Australians through political correctness. Rightly or wrongly, this perception does exist, and I would like to see the playing field levelled.

“There is a distinction ­between expressing a view that you disagree with a certain cultural issue or practice in a ­respectful manner, and being abusive or vilifying a group.”

Mr Goodenough said the challenge for the committee was to find the right balance in recommending changes to the legislation.

“As a migrant of Eurasian heritage I see the need to protect ethnic and racial minorities on one hand but also the duty to protect mainstream Australians from situations of reverse discrimination. The sentiment in the pub often is resentment that sometimes ethnic minorities use the provisions in the law to take things too far. Our challenge is to make the law fair to all.”

But the deputy chair of the inquiry, Labor MP Graham Perrett, said evidence given to a hearing in Hobart yesterday from Equal Opportunity Tasmania, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law and the University of Tasmania was “overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the current protections” in section 18C.

“The committee heard that racism, including ‘everyday racism’ caused widespread damage to Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse Australians and their communities,” he said.

“As parliamentarians in positions of relative power, it would be arrogant and irresponsible for us to assume we could have any understanding of what it is like to face the type of racism experienced by many Australians every day.”

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