“The moment for reform [of the Racial Discrimination Act] has clearly passed,” Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson said in opening today’s “Freedom Symposium” in Sydney. “But the lessons about the need for a united approach should not.”

It’s advice that should be heeded by Attorney-General George Brandis, who was notably absent from today’s event.

It’s Brandis’ failings that do much to show the need for that united approach — first with the government’s efforts to reform section 18C of the RDA, and then with its bungled announcement of a data retention scheme.

There are many who believe Brandis lost the chance to reform 18C when he declared that people had the right to be bigots. It is a straightforward statement — like it or not, people do have such a right — but politically, it was a disaster that altered perceptions of the government’s proposed reform away from free speech to the right of people to express crude racism and bigotry.

More broadly, the government manifestly failed to learn the lesson that its predecessor struggled to grasp: that proposing any controversial reform requires voters to be convinced that there’s a problem that needs fixing in the first place.

It’s a lesson Brandis himself might make an effort to learn as he works to reverse the debacle of the government’s own attack on free speech via data retention.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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