25 March 2014



SUBJECT/S: Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Craig Thomson

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: Yesterday we heard a statement by the first law officer of the nation, in response to a question about the repeal of existing anti-race hate speech laws, saying that in Australia we have a right to be a bigot, basically. I think that is an extraordinary statement by someone who, to put it mildly, would not have experienced any kind of race hate speech, that the race discrimination provisions are there in sections 18C and 18D to protect.

I think it’s also extraordinary coming after Harmony Day on Friday, and so many MPs would have been in their electorates wearing orange ribbons, to then have a circumstance where such a statement can be made in the Parliament. We know that the repeal of these provisions are opposed by a great number of community groups who are very concerned about what the impact will be of the repeal of section 18C. We know that within the Coalition’s party room a number of individuals, including Ken Wyatt, are vigorously opposed to this change.

So I think it is incumbent, just as we have seen in the last 24 hours, where bad public policy to repeal the Future of Financial Advice reforms that Labor put in place, where that has been put on ice, I think that it is time to also look at this being a bad piece of policy being pursued by this government. I doubt that you would find any community group, any ethnic group, any advocacy services who agree with its repeal and I think that should be reflected in this government’s policy in this area.

JOURNALIST: Ms Rowland, does Labor believe in free speech or just speech [inaudible]?

ROWLAND: No, Labor believes in free speech. The thing about section 18C is that it’s moderated by section 18D, which puts within it protections to ensure that freedom of speech is in fact one of the exemptions or defences to this particular provision.

I think it’s very important to recognise that even from the start when this was put in place some 20 years ago these were the same issues that were identified. And that’s why very careful balancing in terms of legislative drafting was undertaken in this area, and that’s why these provisions have served us well over nearly 20 years.

JOURNALIST: Is this issue a test of Tony Abbott’s commitment to the Indigenous Advisory Council when the head of that body is saying these laws shouldn’t be repealed?

ROWLAND:  I think that that is one voice that should certainly be listened to by the Prime Minister. I think he should also be listening to a number of community groups and I’ll just mention a few; from the Jewish community, many from different ethnic groups, and I think it is a test of whether or not this government takes seriously its commitment to multiculturalism and an inclusive, harmonious society. Last night we had the Multicultural Awards where the Prime Minister talked about Australia being a multicultural country. This is an opportunity to say, ‘I’ve listened to the community on this matter, it’s quite clear that there’s fierce opposition to what it could unleash.’

JOURNALIST: Specifically on Tony Abbott’s commitment to be the Prime Minister for Indigenous Australia, is this going to be a test?

ROWLAND: Look, I think it certainly is a factor, there’s no doubt about that. There are many other things though that I think motivate that question. We raised in the last sitting the number of job losses in Gove for example. There’s a lot of other issues in this area, but I don’t think I’ve seen one Indigenous group that actually supports the repeal, so I think it’s a test of not only the Prime Minister, but certainly his party room.

JOURNALIST: Your NSW Labor colleague Craig Thomson is being sentenced today, what do you hope comes from that?

ROWLAND: I think the full force of the law can and will be applied, he has put his case to the courts and that has been dealt with. I think that this is a very sorry episode in terms of what happens when you betray people that put their trust in you, specifically those poorly paid – by and large a lot of people who are poorly paid union members – and I think they have a right to be angry about it. I think that the full force of the law can and will be applied and that justice will be served in a number of ways.

JOURNALIST: Are you surprised that he’s never apologised for this?

ROWLAND: I actually just think it’s a really sorry episode and nothing actually would surprise me in this instance. Every time you open the paper to see what was going on I was surprised and that of course is a matter for the courts.

JOURNALIST: But he stood in that Parliament and said stuff like [inaudible] credit cards.

ROWLAND: Well look, we had a motion in the Parliament a couple of weeks ago about that matter. I think it’s very important that justice is done and seen to be done and I’m sure it will be in this instance and I have full confidence in the courts.

Thank you.