Liberal MPs say concerns about the misuse of race hate laws have "hit the mainstream", and have hailed the Prime Minister's suggestion that debate about change to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is "reasonable".
Coalition MPs Tony Abbott, Tim Wilson, Eric Abetz and Dean Smith – who has recommended a parliamentary committee look at the controversial section of the act – were delighted with Malcolm Turnbull's comments.
The Prime Minister has previously ruled out any changes to section 18C, but on Friday he said his government would consider a proposal put forward by Senator Smith for a parliamentary inquiry.
He said the government had no plans to amend the act, but crucially added: "Senator Smith has recommended that the issue should be considered by a parliamentary committee, presumably the human rights committee. That's a recommendation he has made and the government is considering it.
"He's made the argument – and I think it's a reasonable one – that there should be an open and calm, cool discussion of the issues relating to this."
Section 18C makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person or people on the basis of race, colour and national or ethnic origin.
As prime minister, Mr Abbott promised in 2013 to amend the act to remove "offend, insult or humiliate", but dumped that plan amid a massive backlash. However, conservative and libertarian senators have been pushing a plan to amend it to remove "offend" or "insult".
Senator Smith said that cases brought to the Human Rights Commission under 18C against three students at Queensland University of Technology involving allegedly racist Facebook posts, and a case against the Australian cartoonist Bill Leak over an allegedly racist cartoon, had brought the issue into the mainstream.
"We have moved from a theoretical discussion to one which has brought into sharp focus the risk of freedom of speech issues in people's daily lives," he said. "This is best demonstrated by the QUT case.
"The law should always be under constant review."
Mr Abbott said on Friday Leak was being "persecuted" by the Human Rights Commission over his cartoon depicting a neglectful Aboriginal father, which Mr Abbott described as a tough but legitimate point of view.
"There's two problems here," he told Sydney radio station 2GB of the "bad law". "Problem number one is section 18C.
It must be amended and, frankly, the government should pass an amendment through the House of Representatives as soon as possible," he said, calling the act a statement of intent to "defy" the intransigent Senate.
"We know a lot more now than we did back in late 2014 when, regrettably, I decided that we would not pursue an amendment at that time.
"Problem number two is the Human Rights Commission. I mean, they are on a vendetta, it seems, against anyone who doesn't conform to the canons of political correctness."
Mr Wilson, a lower house MP, welcomed the prospect of an inquiry, saying "we need a constructive pathway through the issue, and the PM's leadership on this is very welcome".
" There are now too many cases to say this is a fringe issue – it's not. It goes to the heart of our democracy. Liberals must always stand up for free speech."
The mood inside government was changing, Mr Wilson suggested, because "the law has been used as a weapon".
Asked if the existing laws were working effectively, Mr Turnbull said some controversial applications had been brought to the Human Rights Commission, including the one against Leak and Queensland university students over access to campus facilities.
"What I am saying is this is a very legitimate area of discussion," he said. "The question mark has always been over the use of the words 'insult' and 'offend'."
Mr Turnbull stressed the government would not allow any tolerance for hate speech or language promoting racial hated, but denied Leak was a racist, despite his controversial cartoons depicting Indigenous Australians prompting an outcry earlier this year.
With Fergus Hunter