Friday, March 22, 2013

Our freedoms safe — for now

The Gillard government's backdown on its outrageous media regulation and anti-free-speech discrimination laws is welcome.  But it's terrible that in 2013, in a liberal democracy like Australia, we even had to have the debate.

Australians should never have to worry about losing their right to free speech.  But the sad truth is that the Left has abandoned freedom of speech.  It's only because of a significant public backlash against these laws that the government has shelved its attempt for now.  This saga is a warning for all parties.  The Australian people are fed up with governments trampling on their rights.

Yesterday, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was forced to admit the government did not have the support in the parliament to pass its media regulation package.

The laws would have introduced a government-appointed Public Interest Media Advocate to police the media.  The government even threatened to strip away the protections journalists need to do their jobs.  The change would effectively have introduced press licensing into Australia for the first time.

On Wednesday, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced that the government would not proceed with the draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012, pushed by his predecessor, Nicola Roxon.

This outrageous draft bill would have made it unlawful to offend or insult a person at work because of attributes such as their political opinion, social origin or religious belief.

This aspect of the proposal represented a dangerous threat to free speech.

In a breathtaking attack on fundamental legal rights, the draft bill also reversed the burden of proof.  Those accused of discrimination would have been forced to prove they were innocent, as opposed to normal legal practice where the complainant must make out all the elements of their case.  By reversing the onus of proof, the draft bill turned on its head the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.  The draft bill also proposed to force defendants to pay their own legal costs even where they won against a vexatious litigant.

Worryingly, the loudest voices in favour of these restrictions on freedom of speech came from taxpayer-funded bodies, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.  It is a damning indictment on these organisations that they failed to stand up for freedom of speech when it was under a very real threat.

Doubly so because they were shown up by ordinary members of the Australian community whose taxpayer dollars they use to fund their incessant lobbying.

Free speech and a free press are essential to effective democracy.  It is alarming that one of Australia's two major political parties was willing to undermine such fundamental rights in a petty vendetta against media outlets fulfilling their role of scrutinising government policies.

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