Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill

The Government Party Room this morning agreed to reforms to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (the RDA) and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (the AHRC Act), which will strengthen Australia’s anti-vilification laws, enhance freedom of speech and improve the complaint-handling processes of the Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission).

These reforms follow the release of the Report into Freedom of Speech in Australia by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on 28 February.

The legislation will remove the words “offend, insult, humiliate” from section 18C of the RDA and insert the word “harass”. It will also introduce the “reasonable member of the Australian community” as the objective standard by which contravention of section 18C should be judged.

Amendments will also be made to the AHRC Act to facilitate the disposal of unmeritorious complaints and ensure fairness is accorded to both complainants and respondents. The legislation will raise the threshold for the Commission to accept a complaint, provide additional powers for the Commission to terminate unmeritorious complaints and limit access to the courts for unsuccessful complaints.

Minor technical amendments, identified by the Commission itself, are also included to improve the Commission’s reporting obligations, its conciliation processes, and governance arrangements.

There has been a great deal of public discussion in recent times about the protection of freedom of speech in Australia. That discussion has focussed, in particular, upon s. 18C of the RDA, and on the way in which the Commission deals with complaints. The recent cases of the students at QUT, and the complaint against the late cartoonist Bill Leak, have brought the issue to even greater prominence.

In its report Traditional Rights and Freedoms, tabled in March 2016, the Australian Law Reform Commission said that “Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act, of which s. 18C forms part, would benefit from a more thorough review in relation to freedom of speech”. In November last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission asked the Government to propose “amendments to streamline the processes by raising the threshold for accepting complaints”.

The Government’s reforms strike the right balance by strengthening the protections against hate speech based on race, whilst enhancing freedom of speech. They ensure that unmeritorious complaints are terminated and respondents are not put to great personal and financial cost.

Reforms to the Commission’s complaint handling procedures are sensible and the overwhelming majority are supported by the Commission itself. These measures will restore public confidence in the Commission’s processes, whilst reducing its regulatory burden.

Legislation will be introduced into the Senate this week.