Australia's Changes to Race-hate Laws Upset Jewish Leaders

Premier Abbott says draft legislation removes ambiguity in Australian law regarding free speech.

AP

SYDNEY – Jewish community leaders in Australia are on a collision course with the federal government over its proposed new race hate laws, which could complicate litigation against Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites.

The Liberal government on Tuesday unveiled a draft of its proposed legislation to replace race hate laws that have existed for almost 20 years and have been used successfully by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Under the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, it would no longer be illegal to “offend, insult or humiliate” an Australian because of their race or ethnicity. It would, however, be illegal to vilify or intimidate someone based on their race or ethnicity.

Defending the draft legislation in parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: “What the government are proposing to do is to maintain the red light on inciting racial hatred, but we are removing the amber light on free speech.”

Jewish groups are fuming over the proposed changes. Robert Goot, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the draft law was “deeply flawed” and “rips up key protections” to ethnic groups in Australia.

“This legislation gives the green light to unleashing racial hate speech in Australia, no matter how unreasonable and lacking in good faith,” he said.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein, of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, concurred. The proposed amendment “removes any protection against public insults and humiliation on the grounds of race,” he said.

“To pass the amendments as they stand would risk emboldening racists, threatening the quality of life of ethnic minorities in Australia and seriously straining the fabric of our social cohesion and harmony.”

The showdown has been brewing since the government's pre-election pledge last year to repeal race hate laws in a bid to protect freedom of speech. It has become the only major fault line between Jewish leaders and the government, which is unapologetically supportive of Israel.

Josh Frydenberg, the sole Jewish MP in the Liberal government, appears caught in the current crossfire. He did not respond to requests for comment from Haaretz on Wednesday, but said on Sunday the proposed legislation could safeguard freedom of speech while ensuring people who racially vilify could be punished.

“It’s about getting that balance right,” he told Channel 10. “We do not want Holocaust deniers in this country. We do not want that.”

But when Abbott was asked this week if the proposed new laws would allow Adelaide-based Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben to publish his material freely, he did not answer unequivocally, saying it would be a matter for the courts.

“The best antidote to folly is commonsense and the best way to refute a bad argument is with a good argument,” he told Fairfax Radio.

Toben was ordered to remove the offensive material from his website in 2002, after successful litigation by Jeremy Jones, then president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Danny Ben-Moshe, a Melbourne-based academic, told Haaretz: “If the government’s amendment goes through, Jews in Germany and just about everywhere else in Europe will have far greater protection against racist hate than they will in Australia.

“The government is saying to the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors that anyone can come up to them and unleash barrages of anti-Semitism.”

Mark Dreyfus, the former attorney-general in the previous Labor government, said the proposed changes are a “massive watering down” of the race hate laws.

Dreyfus, one of two Jews in the previous Labor government, claimed that the government’s stance contradicts its support for the London Declaration on Combatting Anti-Semitism, which all Liberal Party members – including Abbott – signed last year.

Attorney-General George Brandis, who has consulted with Jewish community leaders on his proposed amendments, said in parliament this week that Australians had “a right to be bigots.”

His comments were met by a chorus of condemnation from a diverse array of ethnic community representatives.

“I have always said that freedom of speech and the need to protect people from racial vilification are not inconsistent objectives,” he said. “Laws which are designed to prohibit racial vilification should not be used as a vehicle to attack legitimate freedoms of speech.”

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry has been at the forefront of a coalition of ethnic and religious groups that has “vehemently opposed” the government’s decision to repeal the current legislation.

Kirstie Parker, co-chair of the elected representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, said: “We are horrified to consider the kind of Australia that could grow out of what is now being proposed.”

Brandis has invited community submissions on his draft legislation until April 30, saying he is “very open to other suggestions.”