The question being asked again and again in our body politic is: how has a seemingly smart man made such stupid strategic decisions over and over? The Prime Minister’s conduct of the 18C debate reveals the true character of the government and the true character of the Prime Minister—powerless within his own party; pandering to an ideological right-wing that regard the Prime Minister as an outsider, even an imposter; pursuing an issue that appeals to a tiny rump of hard-line ideologues but not the great majority of Australians; pursuing legislative changes that seek to solve a problem that does not really exist. It consumes the political capital of a government that has none to spend. It consumes momentum of a government that is already in paralysis. It mobilises key parts of the community against the Liberal Party, parts of the community from whom a smarter, more centrist Liberal Party may have hoped to draw support rather than such fierce opposition. And it ensures that this government continues to talk about issues that are irrelevant to ordinary Australians, to talk about boutique alternative right causes.

I cannot believe that we are here again, having once again to fight this fight to stop the government weakening protections against hate speech. We first had to fight this fight during the reign of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. You might recall on that occasion that the Attorney-General, George Brandis, famously made the argument for change based around the notion that ‘people have the right to be bigots’. At that time, it was primarily about protecting their mate Andrew Bolt and showing that he was hard done-by at the hands of a vast politically correct conspiracy, a conspiracy that haunts the dreams and populates the nightmares of conservative politicians.

There was at that time a massive movement from the Australian community, ethnic representative groups and the Labor Party to put a stop to those changes. And ultimately, even the then Prime Minister, the member for Warringah realised his mistake saying, ‘Leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this position.’ At that moment, Prime Minister Tony Abbott showed more backbone and a greater realisation of what it means to be leader, a greater sense of strategic nouse than Prime Minister Turnbull ever has.

But here we are again pursuing a debate and a piece of legislation that we know the Prime Minister does not support, we know the Deputy Prime Minister does not support and we know the Australian people do not support. But once more, the ‘Idaho Militia’ that dominates the Liberal Party Room have prevailed over a Prime Minister that has no authority in the party he stole, the party he led to near-catastrophe in 2016. In August last year Turnbull said, ‘The government has no plans to change 18C. We have other, much more pressing priorities to address and they include big economic reforms.’ Has he just run out of policy or, once more, has he been over-run by his right wing?

Even the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has slammed the Liberal Party for focusing on this issue as a political distraction. When the Deputy Prime Minister is the person making the most sense, we all know this government is close to losing its will to live! A Fairfax-Ipsos poll of March 28 found eight in 10 voters oppose changes that would make it legal to ‘offend, insult or humiliate’. The Australian people know it is wrong and it is unpopular. The Turnbull government even excluded Indigenous voices from the 18C inquiry notwithstanding the fact that 54 per cent of  complainants identify as Indigenous.

The law as it is now strikes the right balance between free speech and protecting people from racial hate speech. Section 18C says it is unlawful for a person to do an act in public which is ‘reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ another person or a group of people. Offend, insult, humiliate have a legal definition which case law has determined creates a high bar, and 18D creates public interest and good faith protections which those opposite always fail to consider.

This will impact my electorate. The electorate of Batman is proudly multicultural and is among the most diverse communities in Victoria. Half of my constituents speak a language other than English and one in 10 are not fluent in English. It has the largest urban Aboriginal population in Victoria and is home to many Aboriginal peak bodies. What does this government want people to be able to say that they cannot say now? What does the government want members of my community to be able to hear that they cannot hear now?

30 MARCH 2017

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