Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt is poised for victory in his crusade to repeal sections of Australia's Racial Discrimination Act after dinner buddy Tony Abbott committed to changing the law when the Coalition ascends to government.
In his "Freedom Wars" speech delivered yesterday to a gaggle of adoring acolytes at the Institute of Public Affairs, the alternative Prime Minister gave his conservative bedfellow a deliberate shout out when outlining his legislative plans:
"If it's alright for David Marr, for instance, to upset conservative Christians in his attempt to have them see the error of their ways, why is it not alright for Andrew Bolt to upset activist Aboriginals to the same end?"
When Bolt was found guilty last year for claiming pale-skinned Aborigines had identified as indigenous to further their careers in columns with titles like "White is the new black", his legal team considered appealing the decision -- perhaps all the way to the High Court.
But News then ditched that path, saying instead that it would lobby the legislature to ensure its star columnist could opine freely in the future. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has ruled out repealing or changing the act, leaving Abbott as Bolt's only saviour.
Abbott already had an eager ear -- when the guilty verdict was handed down, he warned specifically against restricting "the sacred principle of free speech". "Free speech means the right of people to say what you don't like, not just the right of people to say what you do like," he said.
And fortuitously, the two are close -- Abbott dined with Bolt and wife Sally Morrell after the verdict and implored him to keep writing and continue filming his low-rating Bolt Report to keep the Tory cause alight.
"[He] made me realise it's not just about me," Bolt told John van Tiggelen in his lengthy Good Weekend profile. "There are others to think about."
Now, the coalescence has borne serious fruit. This morning on his blog, Bolt -- continuing to suggest he is about to be re-persecuted for writing about race issues -- backed his friend and revealed he was "personally disappointed" with another mate, Melbourne Ports MP Michael Danby.
Yesterday, Danby, in a spree of media interviews (including Lateline) said he did not want "to go back to the darkness" of the mid 1990s when racial hatred against the Jewish community was spiraling out of control. He also noted that it seemed Coalition policy was being written by a cabal of right-wing "mates" like Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Bolt.
Under 18C, introduced by Michael Lavarch in the mid-1990s, it is illegal to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people" in public on account of their race or ethnic origin. Abbott has proposed using the common law provisions of inciting fear and hatred while protecting Bolt-esque "expression or advocacy".
Crikey asked Bolt this morning whether he was happy with the mooted changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and whether he had met with Abbott or his office after the dinner detailed by van Tiggelen. He didn't respond.
A serene David Marr, who is hunkered down finishing off a 25,000-word Quarterly Essay on Abbott following numerous face-to-face encounters, was less reticent. He told Crikey this morning he had texted his subject after yesterday's name check.
"The answer to your question re Bolt and me is that I get my facts right. And while you and I don't mind a bit of colourful language, we don't go in for his grossly personal insults," he said.
Marr said he agreed with Abbott’s take on the Racial Discrimination Act: "It's perfectly correct that that particular section needs to be amended." But in a nuanced approach, he says language which merely "offends" should not be illegal but that language which intimidates on the basis of race should remain so.
"I don't think what Bolt wrote would be saved by Abbott's law … It didn't just offend. The judge found that it failed on all four grounds: it offended, insulted, humiliated and intimidated," he said.