Remember when George Brandis said he was born for the repeal of 18C and reining in the Human Rights Commission?
PAUL KELLY AND DENNIS SHANAHAN
TONY Abbott plans to roll back Labor's laws that limit free speech on the basis of not "giving offence", defend religious freedom and reform the Australian Human Rights Commission.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian, the Opposition Leader said that, if elected, he would work with his attorney-general, George Brandis, to require the commission to champion, instead of restrict, the right of free speech in Australia.
This would involve amending the Racial Discrimination Act, which prohibits remarks that offend others on grounds of race or ethnicity. This was the provision used to prosecute newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt.
Signalling his belief that the current law is untenable, Mr Abbott said: "Any suggestion you can have free speech as long as it doesn't hurt people's feelings is ridiculous. If we are going to be a robust democracy, if we are going to be a strong civil society, if we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we've got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company.
"We've got to allow people to think things that are unthinkable in polite company and take their chances in open debate."
Mr Abbott's stance on championing the right of free speech also involves support for the position of Senator Brandis that the Human Rights Commission Act may need to be amended to guarantee reform in its outlook and its promotion of traditional democratic freedoms.
The Abbott-Brandis position is certain to provoke a firestorm of opposition from the Labor Party and the Greens, given their deep attachment to cultural and institutional change through the application of anti-discrimination law.
Senator Brandis has attacked the Human Rights Commission as "an anti-discrimination commission" with little attachment to classical human rights.
Asked by The Australian if he had the tenacity to force through these reforms, Senator Brandis said: "I was born for it."
When Mr Abbott was questioned about the extent of his commitment to this agenda, he said: "I think I can say I have helped to encourage George in that direction."
Mr Abbott's link between speech and thought is the pivotal point. This goes to the heart of the progressive agenda that he opposes - by limiting what people can say, the purpose is to limit what people think, hence the idea of "thought crime".
In a speech last week to the Centre for Independent Studies, Senator Brandis said the debasement of the human rights project lay in the creation of the right to "equal concern and respect". This invested a "privileged status" for those claiming to be victims. Senator Brandis said it led directly to the unacceptable doctrine that underpinned Labor's law: "that a person's freedom to express an opinion will always yield to another person's right not to be offended".
This is the idea Mr Abbott and Senator Brandis have slated for statutory extinguishment. Mr Abbott made it clear he was not defending the article in question written by Bolt, columnist for News Corp Australia, publisher of The Australian. He said the policy was to amend section 18 (c) of the Racial Discrimination Act "in its current form". "I'm not encouraging people to be rude," he said. "I'm not encouraging people to be offensive. People may suffer social ostracism, they may deserve to suffer social ostracism. But if someone has got something they really want to say then, subject to the ordinary laws of defamation, they should be able to say it."
Asked about the campaign to use anti-discrimination law to limit religious freedom and the ability of religious hospitals, charities and schools to uphold their own values, Mr Abbott said: "We think religious organisations ought to be able to maintain their ethos."
This would put an Abbott government into direct conflict with the human rights lobby with its mission of extending anti-discrimination law to force religious institutions into embracing values contrary to their faiths. Mr Abbott said the Coalition had no commitment to repeal the removal of protection for religious providers of aged care facilities to act in accordance with their beliefs.
Senator Brandis said the tragedy of the human rights debate was that the Left had come to see freedom of speech as an obstacle to its conception of human rights. This is the challenge he faces in trying to reform the Australian Human Rights Commission. He proposes to create a new office of freedom commissioner within the Human Rights Commission to advance the cause of traditional rights such as free speech. He said he was prepared to change the act to ensure the commission was effectively re-directed. Mr Abbott said he supported the Brandis agenda.