Donations from the Australian Jewish community to the ruling Liberal Party could be affected by the government’s proposal to remove the phrase “offend, insult and humiliate” from the Racial Discrimination Act and extend its exemptions, a prominent Jewish leader has warned.
Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said that while he suspected only a small number of the Jewish community would change their votes on the issue, it could affect donations to the coalition and on-the-ground support for the Liberal party, the Guardian newspaper reported.
“It is a very difficult thing to judge without clear empirical evidence but I suspect the vote will change for a small number of people but it could impact support for the government in terms of donations, letterboxing and all the other things people do to support,” Wertheim said.
His comments came a day after opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten urged Jewish leaders to speak out against the proposed changes.
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“There is a perception that the racial discrimination laws are there to protect minority groups. This is a major misconception,” Wertheim said. “We have people in Australia who come from many different parts of the world, often to get away from bloodshed and strife and [the] last thing anyone wants to see is the importation into Australia of those hatreds. The current law is one of the few tools that put a brake on those old hatreds.
“It protects all Australians whether they realize it or not, even those people who are supporting a change to the law.”
In a speech to the Zionist Federation of Australia on Sunday, Shorten urged the Jewish community to make its influential voice heard in the debate over watering down the current legal protections against racist hate speech – but he has also urged combatants to desist from inflammatory rhetoric.
The opposition leader validated arguments that Jewish groups, including the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, have raised against the proposed changes.
“The Jewish people have been the target of bigoted abuse – of anti-Semitism – which is an old and wicked problem, and which is still with us today,” Shorten said.
The proposal has triggered a fiery community debate between people who favor more unfettered free expression, and those who believe the current law has helped set and safeguard a more tolerant tone of discussion on issues of race in Australia.
The backlash has been fierce enough for the government to already telegraph it is open to changes. Prime Minister Tony Abbott signaled last Friday that the package could be adjusted.