The backlash from ethnic, indigenous, Jewish and other religious groups intensified when Attorney-General George Brandis said in March that people had a “right to be bigots’’, and the senator had also faced internal opposition from Liberal moderates.
On 29 March the Maltese Community Council of Victoria joined other Australian ethnic communities and in its submission to Senator Brandis it strongly denounced the proposed changes. The MCCV firmly opposed the repeal of Section 18C of the Act as it would have sent out the message that it would be no longer offensive to use racially hateful speech.
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten claimed that Senator Brandis had been humiliated and rolled by his colleagues, the Institute of Public Affairs accused the government of breaking an election promise and turning its back on a fundamental freedom.
Mr Abbott dumped the changes to 18C as he unveiled new counter-terrorism measures, stressing the government was determined to engage in closer consultation with communities, particularly with the Muslim community.
“When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of Team Australia,’’ Mr Abbott said. “And I have to say that the government’s proposals to change 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect.
“I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time and so those proposals are now off the table.”
Mr Abbott said it was a “leadership call’’ he had made after discussions with cabinet. It is understood he had been considering shelving the changes for some time.
“In the end, leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision,’’ he said.
Senator Brandis released the draft changes in March to scrap the 18C provision to make it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate other people or groups of people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.
The government proposed replacing section 18C with provisions making it unlawful to vilify or intimidate others on similar grounds, but there were broad exemptions.
The government had pledged at the election to repeal section 18C “in its current form’’ after it was used against News Corp Australia columnist Andrew Bolt in 2011.
The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) senior deputy chairwoman Eugenia Grammatikakis also welcomed the government’s decision to drop the changes. “It is important to acknowledge that the government did engage in a consultation process and it did listen and consider those views,’’ she said.