SYDNEY, Australia – Jewish community leaders welcomed the Australian government’s decision to scrap plans to repeal parts of the nation’s race-hate laws.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott had pledged to dilute sections of the Racial Discrimination Act in a bid to safeguard freedom of speech, but when the government asked for community consultation, it received a chorus of condemnation, led by the Jewish community.
On Tuesday, Abbott announced the government’s plans are “off the table.”
“Leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this position,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra. “I’m a passionate supporter of free speech and if we were starting from scratch with section 18c we wouldn’t have words such as ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ in the legislation,” he said. “But we aren’t starting from scratch.”
During the debate, Attorney-General George Brandis infamously stated in parliament that Australians “have a right to be bigots,” a comment widely criticized within the Jewish community.
Jewish leaders have previously used section 18c of the law to litigate successfully against Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and religious extremists, and lobbied heavily against the government’s proposed changes.
Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said Tuesday:
“The Prime Minister has made a wise decision. The extraordinarily large number of written submissions received by the federal government opposing its proposed changes indicate that most Australians understand that racial vilification laws are a necessary last resort for the targets of race hate to defend themselves.”
Wertheim added: “Although we were disturbed by the possibility of our legal protections being diminished, the extended public debate about the legislation has had a salutary educative effect in the wider community, and this can only be for the good in the long term.”
While the Liberal government is staunchly pro-Israel, this issue – now neutralized – was the one bone of contention with the Jewish community.