Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he likes the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s “All Is Forgiven” edition, but he has rejected calls to repeal a racial discrimination law that would have prohibited the publication of such content. Critics have said that the law impinges on Australian’s right to free speech to any public criticism of anyone based on their race.
"Now, I rather like that cartoon," Abbott told Fairfax radio's 3AW on Wednesday. "I'm not sure that I would have liked everything that Charlie Hebdo produced but this is a cartoon of the prophet with a tear streaming down his face saying all is forgiven. That spirit of forgiveness is what we need more and more in this rancorous modern world."
Abbott’s comments came as officials debate whether the country’s “hate speech” laws should be repealed. Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson said the law should be repealed because under it, a publication like "Charlie Hebdo could not have been published in Australia." Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane disagreed, saying that that law covers race, and not religion, and that an exemption of the Act protects artistic work or fair comment.
French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo massively increased its print of this week’s edition to 3 million copies from its usual 60,000, but Australians will find it hard to get their hands on one because of its laws preventing circulation of content negatively discussing race. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to do anything in public – including the publishing of articles and cartoons – that is likely to offend another person or group if “the act is done because of the race, color, or national or ethnic origin" of that person or group.”
Abbott had pledged to repeal the “hate speech” law previously, but reneged on that promise last August. The new Charlie Hebdo covers have revived calls to repeal the legislation, but Abbott repeated the government’s stance. "I would prefer that 18C were not in its current terms but we made an attempt to amend it, it was obvious that that attempt to amend it was generating a lot of division in the community," he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. "The government made the decision not to proceed with it at this time and that remains the government's position."
Opponents of the free speech law have been calling for its repeal since News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt was persecuted in 2011 for his provocative comments about fair-skinned Aboriginal people made in 2009. They said that the law is an infringement of the right to free speech, but Abbott has refuted that claim. “I don’t think people should engage in casual insults, but nevertheless I accept that in the course of having a robust democracy, a lot of people will be offended, a lot of people will be insulted,” he said, according to news.com.au.