The debate around racial discrimination laws and free speech must not descend into a battle of screaming banshees, an Abbott government minister has warned.
Attorney-General George Brandis is being urged by Liberal colleagues to moderate his proposed changes, as reports suggest the cabinet watered down his original intentions.
Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, a member of the cabinet, wouldn’t reveal his personal view of the planned changes but said the debate was an important test of whether the issue could be discussed soberly.
“There’s a fair degree of shrillness circulating at the moment,” he said in Canberra on Thursday.
“This is too important to have a battle of screaming banshees.”
Liberal Senator Zed Seselja would like to see some modification of the public discussion exemptions to race-hate speech, saying they were too broad.
“Where it is racial vilification, where it is intimidation, I think absolutely we should see the book thrown at that kind of speech,” he told Sky News.
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell also cautioned against lowering defences against racial and religious intolerance.
“Bigotry should never be sanctioned whether intentionally or unintentionally,” he said.
The government argues section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act should be repealed because it unreasonably restricts freedom of speech.
The repeal would effectively remove the law’s prohibition on offending, insulting or humiliating individuals or groups because of their race or ethnicity.
New protections against racial vilification and intimidation would be created.
The exposure draft has reportedly been watered-down from the version Senator Brandis initially proposed to cabinet.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said that should worry all Australians.
“What on earth did they look like beforehand?” Mr Dreyfus said.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who is also a member of cabinet, insisted Senator Brandis had been misrepresented, saying the changes made a distinction between what should be criticised and what should be criminalised.
Mr Hunt, who has lived in Israel and is a strong opponent of anti-Semitism, believes Holocaust denial should be subject to the sanction of the law.