Ballarat will join a groundswell of local councils standing against controversial federal government changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
Councillor Belinda Coates moved a motion at last night’s Ballarat City Council meeting to oppose sweeping changes to the act that would see the removal of a section that makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity.
The changes were recently proposed by Federal Attorney-General George Brandis.
Cr Coates said her concern was the changes would water down provisions put in place four decades ago to protect the community from racial intolerance.
“Ballarat is a harmonious multicultural community and committed to ensuring it remains that way,” she said.
“It may be argued local governments shouldn’t be weighing in and it’s a federal government issue but actually we are compelled to be standing up for human rights.”
She said there was a groundswell of local councils speaking out, including at least 20 councils in New South Wales and growing numbers in Victoria.
The motion won with a majority vote but a division was called after three councillors spoke in opposition.
Mayor Joshua Morris said the council had taken a strong stance against racism, but he believed the changes put forward by Senator Brandis were more about freedom of speech and creating opportunities for people to be heard.
“If you have the opportunities for those discussions to be heard and spoken and argued against, we have an opportunity to change people’s minds,” he said.
Cr Vicki Coltman said she did not believe it was an issue for the council, nor was it about racism in Australia, but freedom of speech.
“It just pushes the discussion underground,” she said
Also speaking against the motion, Cr Amy Johnson said it set a precedent for issues of state and federal governments in the future.
“When do we step in and when don’t we,” she said.
“The best we can do in this situation is be ambassadors in the community ourselves.”
Cr Phillips said he supported Cr Coates’ motion with a level of caution as he was not sure it fit within council business.
Cr Coates said the only people she had heard supporting the changes to the act were those from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds.
“All the multicultural groups in our community reject them,” she said.
“The only people saying it’s about freedom of speech are the people not being directly affected.”
The council will now write to Senator Brandis informing him of its position.