Draft anti-discrimination laws open flood gates of opinion

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The federal government is currently receiving public submissions in response to its draft anti-discrimination laws – and there have been a watershed of doubts and issues raised.

Naysayers believe the laws go too far, will limit freedom of speech, and increase the scope for lawsuits. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs, the fact that the draft laws prohibit the use of ‘offensive’ and ‘insulting’ speech is too broad and open to interpretation. "I would suggest the government consider taking the words 'offensive' and 'insulting' out (of the legislation). It does raise a risk of increased litigation,” Triggs told News Limited. Professor Triggs added that discrimination cases should be based on the higher test of "intimidation, vilification or humiliation".

Currently the draft law says a person has been discriminated against if someone treats them "unfavourably" on the grounds of "protected attributes" that range from gender to race, disability, age, religion or sexual orientation.

The Senate committee conducting the inquiry into the draft bill has already received some 587 submissions from organisations including churches, employers, unions, mental health agencies, disability groups and state governments.

Attorney General Nicola Roxon has not publicly commented on individual submissions, but a spokeswoman recently announced: “The main objective of this project is to simplify and consolidate many laws into one. If the Senate inquiry identifies the drafting goes well beyond this, the government will closely consider the recommendations.”

In the NSW State Government’s submission, it told the inquiry that the broadening the definition of discrimination "places unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech". "The words 'offend' and 'insult', in particular incorporate a very low threshold of unfavourable treatment," it said.

Similarly, Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark warned that people could be accused of discrimination over what they say in private conversations held in a public place, such as a workplace or club. Related Story: Proposed law would 'end workplace banter'

"Many people may be subjectively offended or insulted by the simple expression or manifestation of views different to their own," he told the inquiry.

"To make such expressions of views in workplaces, schools, clubs and sports prima facie unfavourable treatment and hence discrimination ... appears to substantially erode freedom of expression."

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