The tricky balancing act of the right to freedom of speech and preventing racial abuse through inflammatory language, has been a personal crusade for Berowra MP Julian Leeser.
In what has been an intractable political issue for six years, the MP and member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has described the Committee’s recently completed Report and resultant changes to the Racial Discrimination Act as “an historic breakthrough”.
Mr Leeser was a driving force behind the recommendations to fix the complaints handling process relating to Section 18C of the Act.
Under existing legislation, interpretation of the Act enabled the Australian Human Right Commission (HRC) to interpret laws too broadly, the bipartisan Committee felt. The recent cases of the students at Queensland University of Technology, and the complaint against the late cartoonist Bill Leak, brought the issue to prominence.
Recommended changes to 18C of the Act proposed a tightening up of the way racial abuse complaints are handled, as well as assessing if a complaint is lawful or not – a weeding out process of sorts.
In late March the Senate and House of Representatives passed the Bill in an amended form, though the proposals for RDA language changes were not included.
These new RDA changes include lawyers being fined for taking on racial abuse cases with little chance of success, and giving the HRC more power to terminate a complaint in the complaints assessing process, saving everyone concerned time and money.
Leeser, who sat on the inquiry into Freedom of Speech, said: “I was disgusted by the treatment of the QUT Students and Bill Leak.
“We heard from them at the inquiry and it was impossible not to be moved by their ordeal.
“This legislation will return section 18C to its intended function as an important but limited protection against the worst kind of racial abuse. It will also make it more difficult to bring spurious complaints.”