Australia's human rights commissioner has joined calls for a review of the country's laws against racial discrimination, arguing that the recent attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo shows that people should have the right to use racist and offensive language.
Australia currently has a law that makes it illegal to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people" because of their "race, color or national or ethnic origin."
"If you're going to say you believe in free speech and that people should have the freedom to offend or insult somebody, then the solution cannot be censorship," Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson said today in an interview with ABC.
"So people are either being hypocrites when they say Je Suis Charlie, or they actually believe in free speech and recognize that laws that make it unlawful to insult or offend people are censorious and would see that Charlie Hebdo would be censored in Australia," he added.
Wilson's comments joined a campaign to revisit the laws that has been championed by Senator Cory Bernardi. A long-time opponent of the law, Bernardi broached the topic again Friday on Twitter after last week's attacks in Paris that left 17 people and three gunmen dead.
Bernardi then argued that topics that could potentially offend Muslims should not be "hushed up." In an interview on Sunday with the Guardian, Bernardi said that "certain sections of the community" tried to shut down his previous proposals to overhaul Australia's racial discrimination laws.
Bernardi, a member of the governing Liberal Party, has long agitated for party leader Prime Minister Tony Abbott to support modifying the law.
Abbott previously committed the government to watering down the law, but eventually backed down. When he announced the policy reversal in August 2014, Abbott said, "leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision." He said that the proposed changes had the potential to divide what he has referred to as "Team Australia" when it came to counterterrorism matters.
Bernardi pressed ahead anyway last September. He co-sponsored a bill that would water down section 18C of Australia's Racial Discrimination Act.
His bill sought to remove the words "offend" and "insult" from the text — so that it would only be illegal to "humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people" on the basis of race — arguing that it was an issue of free speech.
Australia's attorney general, George Brandis, described the amendment as protecting "the right to be a bigot" when he announced his support of the changes. The bill did not receive support from the rest of Bernardi's party and it was defeated.
Bernardi's comments over the weekend earned the ire of Tim Soutphommasane, Australia's race discrimination commissioner.
"There's no cause for revisiting the Racial Discrimination Act debate," Soutphommasane told ABC radio on Monday. "Debating values and beliefs is one thing, but there's very little that racial abuse and vilification adds to genuine public debate."
Asked whether a publication such Charlie Hebdo — known for its provocative, anti-religion, and anti-establishment content — could even exist in Australia under the current laws, Soutphommasane said the Racial Discrimination Act only applies to "things which concern the attributes of race, color, ethnicity and national origin."
"There is complete and unfettered freedom to discuss and debate matters of religion, religious identity, religious belief, and religious practice," Soutphommasane said. "There is in any case wide protection for anything that is artistic work or fair comment on matters of public interest, provided that it is done reasonably and in good faith."
After the Paris attacks, Bernardi said he believes Abbott could be swayed once again into supporting the changes.
During an interview on Saturday with Sydney radio station 2UE, Abbott seemed to reference the anti-discrimination legislation when he talked about the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
"It would be a travesty if we were robust in our criticism of everything except that which might do us harm," Abbott said. "We have to be prepared to speak up for our beliefs. We have to be prepared to call things as we see them. Of course from time to time people will be upset, offended, insulted, humiliated."
Bernardi told the Guardian that the prime minister's comments gave him hope. "Perhaps he's had a change of heart," the senator said of Abbott.
Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell
Photo by the Office of Senator Cory Bernardi via YouTube