Why 18C reform is vital

Freedom of speech is one of the key foundations of our society. It goes to the very heart of what has made Australia the most successful democracy in the world.

In 1995, when the then Labor Government introduced section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, I opposed the Bill and made this speech to the Senate, warning it would lead us into the realm of thought police. Watch my speech here:


In the years since, my view hasn’t changed. Regrettably, many of the concerns I expressed at the time have come to fruition and we’ve seen an out of touch Australian Human Rights Commission engaging in a make-work scheme by seeking to be the thought police.

Indeed, back in the early 2000’s, around 30% of the 18C complaints received by the Commission were dismissed as not worthy of pursuit. Under the current regime, its down to 5%.18c

A stand-out example for me on why 18C needs to be amended is the now infamous QUT case where four QUT students were taken to the Human Rights Commission and then to court over the course of four years in relation to innocuous Facebook posts. While the students were ultimately found innocent, they had their reputations trashed, had to fork out $30,000 in legal fees and endured the heartache of the ordeal. This should never have happened. It shouldn’t happen again.

We also saw the renowned Australian cartoonist Bill Leak subjected to an 18C complaint from a “fair skinned aboriginal” after Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane publically called for complaints. While the complaint was dropped, again we had an innocent man subjected to reputation trashing. Sadly, Bill Leak recently died of a heart attack.

Worse still, Dr Soutphommasane has sought to defend his actions with dissembling gobbledygook on par with Gillian Triggs’ misleading evidence before the Senate.

All these actions show that the Human Rights Commission is in its own deluded world and has demonstrated that the Commission is incapable of changing its own ways and that the only way to stop its oppressive culture is to change 18C and the legislation.

The Government’s amendments

The Government has announced that it will make changes both to section 18C of the Act and also to the operation of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Specifically, the Government has announced it will introduce legislation:

  • Removing "offend", "insult" and "humiliate" from section 18C, replacing those words with "harass";
  • Inserting a new reasonable person test to determine whether any alleged breach of 18C reaches a certain standard;
  • Requiring the Human Rights Commission to observe the rules of natural justice;
  • Raising the threshold required for the Human Rights Commission to accept a complaint;
  • Providing additional powers to the Human Rights Commission to dismiss unmeritorious complaints;
  • Limiting access to judicial review of unsuccessful complaints; and
  • Providing disincentives against making unmeritorious appeals to the court by allowing costs to be awarded.

These reforms are vital. I will continue to advocate for free speech in Australia. I encourage you to do the same.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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