UN visit coincides with fresh 18C uproar in Parliament

Federal Parliament erupted over Australia’s race hate laws on Tuesday as a United Nations delegation began its tour of Australia to report on the human rights treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, began a two-week national inquiry in Perth this week, as stormy debate broke out in Canberra over the Turnbull government’s move on controversial section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz is preparing a report on the treatment of Indigenous Australians to present to the UN Human Rights Council in September.

“The timing isn’t great for government to come out and say they want to weaken our laws for racial discrimination,” said Tammy Solonec, a Nigena woman and human rights lawyer with Amnesty International.

Rod Little, a co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples who will meet with Ms Tauli-Corpuz in Sydney on Friday, said he was disappointed argument over 18C had been reignited — especially on what was Harmony Day.

“Australia signed up to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; for this country to be doing that, what they are doing right now, is embarrassing,” Mr Little said.

“I don’t believe the few privileged people should be making these types of decisions on laws meant to protect those more vulnerable from harm and discrimination.”

Debate over section 18C ignited again last year, with human rights advocates pitted against those pushing for greater freedom of speech.

In February, a parliamentary committee failed to reach consensus on whether the racial discrimination laws should be changed and instead focused on improving how the Human Rights Commission handles complaints.

But 18C was back in the spotlight this week after the Coalition party room backed changes that critics argue will water down Australia’s race hate laws.

Under the changes, which will first go to the Senate, it will remain an offence to intimidate a person on the basis of race, but the words “insult”, “offend” and “humiliate” will be replaced with “harass”.

The Human Rights Commission’s handling of complaints would also be overhauled, giving it more power to knock back vexatious or weak claims.

Prime Minister Turnbull said the race hate laws would be stronger and clearer, but the move was condemned by Labor MPs Anne Aly and Linda Burney, who told the Parliament they knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of race discrimination.

NT Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said: “What insulting, offensive or humiliating comments does the Prime Minister think people should be able to say to me?”

For all the public argument, amendment of Section 18C looks set for defeat in the Senate where it does not have the critical support of the Nick Xenophon Team.

“NXT does not support the proposed changes to 18C. We do support sensible changes to the process involved in the handling of such complaints,” Mr Xenophon tweeted on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz will continue her Australian visit until April 3, examining Australia’s measures to reduce Indigenous disadvantage, the administration of justice and detention conditions, land rights and native title, prevention of violence against women and the rate of children removed from their homes by officials.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz is due to meet with federal and state officials, as well as parliamentarians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and private organisations in WA, the Northern Territory, Queensland, the ACT and Victoria. She will also visit Indigenous communities.

“This is a timely opportunity for me to encourage stronger engagement and partnerships between the Government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their organisations,” Ms Tauli-Corpuz said.

By Wendy Caccetta

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