The Government’s War Against Free Speech

I have written before about the ways in which various laws which appear benign and helpful on the surface are in fact nefarious bits of legislation, designed to shut down unwanted opinions and silence non-PC beliefs. Many of the anti-discrimination, anti-vilification, and equal opportunity laws are in fact a direct threat not just to freedom of speech but to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion as well.

Yet many Western governments, including our own here in Australia, keep pressing ahead with such legislation. Indeed, they often make bad laws, and then seek to strengthen them and multiply them. But when you multiply and reinforce bad law all you get is more bad law.

The current Federal proposals on anti-discrimination legislation are a clear case in point. Hopefully by now many of you have put in submissions to the inquiry on this. Of late the press has been reporting on some of these submissions, made both in writing and orally before the Senate committee. Bits of these are worth sharing here.

One news item begins: “Concerns are growing that Labor’s draft anti-discrimination laws are unconstitutional, with experts deeming they would breach the implied freedom of political debate and demanding that they be scrapped in their current form. Murdoch University research dean Augusto Zimmermann and law lecturer Lorraine Finlay are the latest academics to flag problems with the bill.

“They say it would make it unlawful for the first time to discriminate on the basis of ‘political opinions’, which would interfere with freedom of speech and political debate. They also say the legislation violates the ‘basic principles of the rule of law’ and undermines natural justice by reversing the onus of proof so the defendant in any claim has to justify their actions or behaviour. The criticism comes as Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs concedes the bill does ‘arguably go too far’ when it makes it unlawful to offend or insult others, and that this should be changed.”

The Murdoch lecturers’ submission is worth highlighting: “Dr Zimmermann and Ms Finlay write in their submission to the Senate inquiry into the proposed law that it further regulates speech and opinion — which they describe as ‘cardinal tenets of a truly open and democratic society’. They write that, although Australia does not have a bill of rights, the courts have found an ‘implied right’ to freedom of political communication and this has protected ‘insults, abuse and ridicule’ made in political debate.

“The pair say the proposed bill that outlaws discrimination on the basis of political opinion will ‘interfere with political discourse’ and inhibit freedom of speech across the country. ‘What is not reasonable . . . is to have the government of a democratic society target speech on the basis of affording certain people some sort of legal protection from strong criticism of their religious, political and/or ideological convictions, hence allowing the state to dictate what is politically and ideology acceptable. If the proposed bill was passed, it would in our view expand existing anti-discrimination laws beyond the commonwealth’s constitutional powers’.”

Another voice concerned about the bill has been covered in the media. Simon Breheny of the Institute of Public Affairs made an opening statement at the Senate anti-discrimination hearing which began this way: “The exposure draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 is an attack on our fundamental freedoms.

“The draft Bill is not simply a consolidation of existing Commonwealth Acts as the government has claimed. It is a radical overhaul of anti-discrimination law. There are many problems with the draft Bill. The most concerning aspect of the draft Bill is the significant threat it poses to freedom of speech. The definition of discrimination has been expanded to include conduct that offends or insults.

“Given this new definition of discrimination, the inclusion of ‘political opinion’ as a ground on which a claim can be made is absurd and dangerous. Under the draft Bill, you could be taken to court for saying something that offended someone because of a political opinion they hold.

“The freedom to express political opinions in all areas of public life – even those that offend and insult others – is central to the functioning of our system of government as the High Court has found. By undermining freedom of speech the draft Bill poses a grave threat to the health of Australian democracy.

“It is wrong to say that the draft Bill could be amended to a point where it is acceptable. Simply removing the words ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from the new definition of discrimination will not save the draft Bill. The real problem is the whole project itself.

“The draft Bill is not about anti-discrimination. Instead, the consolidation project has resulted in a draft Bill that undermines liberty and places the state at the centre of our interpersonal relationships. Rather than making the law clearer and simpler, the draft Bill adds significant complexity to this area of law.

“The draft Bill also reverses the burden of proof for claims of discrimination. This is completely unacceptable. The person bringing a legal claim should always bear the burden of proving their case. This principle – the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty – is the centrepiece of a just legal system. Reversing the burden of proof would create an unjust system.”

Sadly this particular draft bill is not the only attempt by the government to clamp down on our freedoms. Andrew Bolt has listed a number of other major concerns we should be aware of:

“Put it all together, and Labor is presiding over the greatest assault on Australians’ free speech in our lives:
– it has held an inquiry into what the Greens dubbed the ‘hate media’ – particularly critics of the government
– it is promising new privacy rules affecting the media
– it is threatening new laws to control who owns the media – a response to conservatives such as Gina Rinehart buying into media assets
– it is considering tough new laws to regulate ‘bias’ and reporting, applying tougher controls – back by threats of jail – on everything from big newspapers to even small blogs.
– it has punished News Ltd for its critical coverage by twice over-ruling the decision of an independent panel to award News the tender for the Australia Network.
– it proposed new workplace laws that make it easier for workers to sue their bosses if they’ve had even their political views or social origin offended by something said or done.
– it has rejected calls to alter the Racial Discrimination Act even after it was used to ban columns that questioned how fair-skinned people with both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry identified only as Aboriginal.
– it has issued demands and threats to media executives in response to coverage of the Prime Minister’s involvement in the AWU scandal. Two senior journalists were subsequently sacked.
– it has privately warned at least one media boss that running conservative opinion was a hostile act
– it proposed a government-run internet filter
– it plans to save people’s phone and internet data for two years as a ‘crime fighting’ measure – a big increase in the surveillance of what Australians say or write.
What Labor is doing is sinister. It’s sick.”

Yes it certainly is sinister. All around us we see the whittling away of our freedoms and democratic rights. Fortunately a few voices are crying out – even if often in the wilderness – warning us about where all this is heading. No wonder it has been rightly said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”.

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