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Community warning on hate speech laws

AAP logoAAP 29/12/2016

The federal government believes there are substantial concerns within the community about freedom of speech as ethnic groups urge it to keep race hate speech laws intact.

A parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech, and whether a controversial law banning speech that could insult, offend or vilify people because of their race or religion should change, has published 135 public submissions.

They include many from community and ethnic groups that had led opposition to similar changes to the Racial Discrimination Act proposed under Tony Abbott's leadership in 2014.

But cabinet minister Scott Ryan doesn't believe there's a risk of community backlash should the inquiry recommend a change, although he doesn't usually like to "get into predicting the future".

"There are substantial concerns in the community, reflected in the government's referral of this issue ... to the Joint Standing Committee on Human Rights, because Australians value both a harmonious society and they also value the ability to speak freely about political issues and other issues that are issues of concern to them," he said in Melbourne on Thursday.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged there were "substantial views" among coalition MPs who wanted to look at whether the laws were an inappropriate restriction on speech.

Groups including the Arab Council of Australia, the Australian Hellenic Council, the Chinese Australia Forum, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland have written to the committee urging it to maintain the laws as they stand.

The Chinese Australia Forum says it is deeply concerned by debate around sections of the Racial Discrimination Act, which it believes do protect freedom of speech.

The Arab Council says the act sets Australia apart in the world by demonstrating a clear commitment to combating bigotry and discrimination.

"Indeed, the current political environment warrants the strong backing of the RDA's key provisions," it writes.

"The RDA is critical for protecting the community from predatory and malicious attacks."

Labor says what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull chooses to do now will be a test of his leadership.

"If he has any backbone at all, he will accept that Australians do not want section 18C to be changed and rule out any further action," shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and opposition multicultural spokesman Tony Burke said in a statement.

They said it wasn't surprising public pressure not to change the laws was mounting once again.

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