A committee looking into changes to discrimination law has blocked a leading indigenous group from presenting evidence in person.
Labor and the Greens wanted the Aboriginal Legal Service to give evidence to a five-day inquiry into changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and the way in which the Australian Human Rights Commission handles complaints.
But chairman of the inquiry committee, Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, on Friday refused to allow the service to offer its thoughts on the legislation, which was only introduced to parliament on Wednesday.
“I think it would be extremely unfortunate if we consider far-reaching changes to the Racial Discrimination Act without inviting one indigenous person to give evidence – I think that would be disgraceful, quite frankly,” Labor senator Murray Watt said.
Senator Macdonald said he would not allow it because “once you start having one group of any type, in this case an indigenous group, who have a particular view, do you call other members of that same group that might have a different view?”
“I think it was for that reason we decided to restrict it to the ones we have (on the witness list),” Senator Macdonald said.
Senator Watt said he would be happy for the committee to invite an indigenous person to argue in favour of the law changes, if one could be found.
ALS senior managing solicitor Michael Lalor told AAP he was disappointed he could not present evidence.
“Aboriginal people are, if not the most discriminated people in the country, one of the most discriminated people,” he said.
It is proposed the words “offend, insult and humiliate” in Section 18C of the Act be changed to “harass and intimidate”.
Mr Lalor said his key concern with the new laws was the use of the term “harassment”, which in criminal law required a “continuing course of conduct” rather than a one-off incident.
Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs told the hearing the current language in the Act had worked “extremely well” and should not be changed.
“The Federal Court has interpreted that language in a way which is predictable, fair and considers the seriousness of any discrimination,” she said.
Race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said the proposed law change was likely to have a chilling effect on people coming forward with complaints.
“It may signal to the community that conduct which offends, insults or humiliates people on the basis of their race may be acceptable or justified.”
Law Council president Fiona McLeod told the hearing the existing law wording should stand.
“(It) strikes an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and protection from racial vilification and should not be amended,” she said.
The council was not aware of any convincing evidence the current law was impeding freedom of speech and the proposed change could put Australia in breach of its international human rights obligations.
However, the council supported the proposed changes to the AHRC’s complaints handling processes, subject to some technical amendments.
The government is unlikely to have the numbers to pass the Act changes, but there is support among Labor and the Greens for the changes to the AHRC’s processes to head off frivolous or low-level complaints before they get to court.