Brandis waxes lyrical in race-hate defence

Daniel McCulloch

Attorney-General George Brandis has invoked some strange bedfellows in a spirited defence of watering down Australia's race-hate laws.

Senator Brandis was asked during a Senate inquiry on Friday whether he still held the view people have the right to be bigots.

"One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting," he told the committee in Canberra.

"Now, those are not my words, those are the words of Salman Rushdie, and I agree with them."

The next in his figurative free speech dinner party guests was an American social critic and political activist.

"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise we don't believe in it at all," Senator Brandis said.

"Those are not my words, those are the world of Noam Chomsky, not somebody I am often given to quoting."

The attorney then looked closer to home to illustrate his position on race-hate laws.

"In Australia we tolerate robust expression of opinions because it is part of our freedom and inherent in the constitutional system of representative democracy," he said.

"That system requires freedom of communication; it belongs as much to the obsessive the emotional and the inarticulate as it does to the logical, the cerebral and the restrained."

Those words were Justice Michael Kirby's, delivered in the course of a High Court judgement in 2004.

"So that's not merely an observation by Justice Kirby, it is actually the law of the land," Senator Brandis said.

The Turnbull government wants the words "offend", "insult" and "humiliate" in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act changed to "harass and intimidate".

Parliament makes laws to preserve a just and orderly society, Senator Brandis said.

"It is not, in my view, the role of the parliament to tell people what they are allowed to say."

"I don't think freedom of speech should be a defence, I think freedom of speech should be a right."