House of Representatives Speech- Media 2013

Let us take a considered and careful look at the record on free speech, since that is the way in which this has been put by the member for Wentworth. Let us compare the hysterical rhetoric that we have just heard from the member for Wentworth, and the hysterical rhetoric from a whole range of people on the other side of this chamber, with what has actually happened in terms of historical facts.

Let us take a considered and careful look at the record on free speech, since that is the way in which this has been put by the member for Wentworth. Let us compare the hysterical rhetoric that we have just heard from the member for Wentworth, and the hysterical rhetoric from a whole range of people on the other side of this chamber, with what has actually happened in terms of historical facts.

The Labor Party has always been the party which stands up for freedom of speech and democracy in this country. It is the Labor Party which has for over a century now fought for the protection of democratic values. It is the Labor Party which has fought for legal protections which allow all Australians—all Australians—to exercise their right to speak freely and engage in democracy, not just those with the most vitriolic views.

The ability of citizens to speak freely and to openly debate the issues of the day is a hallmark of a robust democracy, and I suspect that the member for Wentworth might be able to agree with that statement. The right of all citizens to speak freely is one of our most highly valued and fiercely protected rights. Freedom of association is another right which is valued and fiercely protected. Voting rights are another key part of democracy—so is giving the right to all our citizens to enjoy fully the benefits of our democracy. Without those rights, freedom of speech becomes meaningless in practice, and that is why Labor has fought not only for freedom of speech but also for all those other rights.

Australia's first racial discrimination act was passed under Prime Minister Whitlam. The establishment of the Human Rights Commission occurred under Prime Minister Hawke. The Sex Discrimination Act gave new rights to more than half our population. I could mention the introduction by the Hawke government of section 327 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which prohibits a person interfering with the free exercise of any political right in relation to an election. Native title and, with it, the fundamental recognition of the rights of first Australians was introduced of course under Prime Minister Keating. It was Labor that created section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1995, ensuring that hate speech and racial vilification has no place in Australia and that vulnerable groups in our community enjoy to the full the right to be an Australian citizen and the right to enjoy the benefits of our community—that is a provision which this Liberal Party has pledged to repeal. Or I could mention the Disability Discrimination Act, giving rights to some of our most vulnerable Australians; it too was passed by Labor. Once again, today, we are passing landmark legislation to create a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Our government has appointed a new Children's Commissioner—one of the first acts I was able to take as the new Attorney-General—to represent and speak out for those who have a smaller voice in Australian society. And it was our government that repealed Work Choices, which of course limited Australians' right to freedom of association. Australians in 2007, with their vote, overwhelmingly rejected the restriction on their liberty and on their right to organise that were bound up in that Work Choices legislation. It is our government that has asked an independent monitor to consider national security assessments of irregular maritime arrivals; established a parliamentary human rights scrutiny committee; and required all ministers to report on compliance of laws with human rights principles.

It was our government that introduced the most significant pro-disclosure reforms to the Freedom of Information Act since the act was first passed. We have removed application fees, we have abolished the conclusive certificates that were so beloved by the Howard government and we have introduced free decision-making time for journalists. We have established the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. It is the Labor Party that has always been, and will continue to be, the champion of individual liberties, enshrining these protections in law.

By contrast, we have seen a lot of empty posturing about free speech from the Liberal and National parties. The member for Wentworth took it to perhaps the heights of the overblown rhetoric we have seen on this subject when he said yesterday—and I will quote him, because the level of bluster and rhetoric he reached was so startling:

Freedom is at stake, liberty is at stake, democracy is at stake …

The member for Wentworth's credibility is at stake if he thinks that those comments are appropriate to this legislation that has been proposed. The Liberal Party's credibility is at stake if they seriously think democracy is at stake because of these reforms.

Let us look at a few more historical facts here. Democracy can be said to have been truly at stake when the Liberal Party, the same Liberal Party that sits opposite us now, tried to outlaw a political party in 1950. That is what Liberal Prime Minister Menzies did—tried to outlaw a political party, which of course the Australian people resoundingly rejected at a referendum. We can go further back in time and point to the same Menzies, not as Prime Minister but as a minister, trying to prevent Czech socialist Egon Kisch, a famous case, from even entering Australia because of his political views. In contrast, Labor did not seek to prevent the right-wing extremist Geert Wilders from entering Australia this year. We can point to other examples of such conduct by this Liberal Party while in government, such as Sir Robert Menzies repeatedly suppressing damaging media stories with D-notices or, indeed—to bring it a bit more up to date—the conduct of the Howard government, which repeatedly used conclusive certificates to prevent freedom-of-information releases, and those, of course, as I have mentioned, are provisions which the Labor Party has repealed in government.

You could say that democracy was truly at stake when the Liberal Party, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Howard, wanted to and did impose gag orders on churches and charities in exchange for funding. Labor has lifted that ban. If we are going to talk about freedom of speech and freedom to participate in political debate in this country, let us remember it is Labor that lifted that ban, allowing charities to speak freely and to participate in political debate, and made sure that there will be no such bans in the future. But this Liberal Party, in its Liberal National Party manifestation in Queensland, has not given up on gagging charities and churches or anyone else who has an opposing view. The Queensland LNP government has not only imposed gag orders on churches and charities but has removed funding from organisations which speak out against that government. Now, that is democracy at stake, not the imagined and overblown, rhetorical opposition that has been raised to these media reforms. And it is not surprising—it is not something that should surprise any Australian, given the history of the conservative parties in Queensland. It was of course the Bjelke-Petersen government that dispatched secret police to keep records on individuals and on Indigenous activists; it was the Bjelke-Petersen government that banned street marches and locked up individuals for protesting. That is the attitude of the conservative parties in this country to free speech.

It was under the Howard Liberal government that two journalists faced jail for contempt. If we are going to talk about freedom of the press we should remind ourselves of what was the actual conduct of the Liberal Party while in government: to stand by and do nothing when two journalists were faced with jail for contempt of court for refusing to reveal their sources. By contrast, this Labor government has introduced journalist shield laws to make sure that that situation cannot occur again, to protect the freedom of the press to do their work, to protect freedom of speech in this country.

Democracy was truly at stake when the Howard government restricted voting rights by passing laws that cut off the rolls as soon as an election was announced, bringing it forward by nearly a month, to make sure that thousands of young Australians and other people who had not got on the roll were disenfranchised. That is something that puts democracy at stake, not these media reforms.

We could point to the Liberal Party's hero Peter Costello fighting all the way to the High Court to resist giving News Limited journalist Michael McKinnon Treasury information under the Freedom of Information Act. Labor has removed gag clauses. Labor is allowing charities and churches once again to speak freely and contribute to robust democratic debate in Australia. Labor has improved journalist shield laws. Labor is developing whistleblower legislation.

It is not a stretch to say that the party of which the member for Wentworth is a part is now much closer to the American Tea Party than it has ever been before. It is a party that is focused on selfishness. It is a party that is focused on unregulated big business more than ever before. It is ridiculous to think that liberalism has anything to do with the dries that are now occupying the benches on the other side of this chamber. We see through the Liberal Party's sanctimonious posturing in relation to media reform. It is, as usual, simply backing self-interest and jumping on the bandwagon.

Let us take a brief, considered look at this current free-speech debate that has been put forward in response to the media reforms. Journalists occupy an extremely privileged position in our democracy—they have access to information that no other business, no government nor the average man or woman on the street can access. The onus is on journalists to protect and keep the confidentiality of their sources. The reform that we are talking about does not force journalists to reveal their sources; what it does is to focus attention on Australians' personal information. It is a package of reforms that will enhance privacy for Australians. It will ensure that the media deals with photographs and personal data in an appropriate and entirely responsible fashion, and it will be modelled on self-regulation.

I want to mention a perhaps-overlooked fact in this debate: the provision that we are seeking to amend, section 7B(4) of the Privacy Act, was placed there by the Liberal government in 2000. It was placed there when the Privacy Act was extended from its previous form, which just dealt with government, to the whole of the private sector. That is the provision we are dealing with—the provision which says, in simple terms, that journalists are exempt from the provisions of the Privacy Act provided they work for a recognised organisation that signs up to a code that says there will be an observance of privacy protections. All that is occurring with this proposed amendment is the use of the same provision, one that was put there by the Liberal Party in government. I would like to note what Senator Ian Campbell said in the second reading speech in 2000 on this very provision. He said in the Senate:

The media in Australia have a unique and important role in keeping the Australian public informed.

In developing the Bill the Government—

that is, the Liberal government—

has sought to achieve a balance between the public interest in allowing a free flow of information to the public through the media and the individual's right to privacy.

In order to achieve this balance, the Bill does not apply to acts and practices of media organisations in the course of journalism—

and this is the important bit—

where the media organisation has publicly committed itself to observing published standards that deal with privacy in a media context.

The Liberal Party, too, expects the media to uphold these standards—and that is the context in which we should be seeing this. The Liberal Party in government put in place an exemption for journalists. That exemption will be continued. It was a conditional exemption when they legislated for it; it will be a conditional exemption under these reforms as well—and the condition is that the journalist is someone employed by an organisation that is going to observe privacy standards. It is not particularly complicated, nor is it some massive intrusion, as has been suggested here. We will be continuing to use self-regulation. The Press Council will continue to be in existence and it will develop the standards. It will not be the independent Public Interest Media Advocate who is developing the standards; it will be the self-regulating Press Council which is developing the standards. The Public Interest Media Advocate is going to consult with the federal Privacy Commissioner, Tim Pilgrim, who will take into account Australians' privacy protections in the media and decide whether or not the standards that are developed by the Press Council are appropriate.

We could take a look at the member for Wentworth's own record on free speech. Just yesterday he encouraged Senator Conroy to sue News Limited—and it is not surprising, because the member for Wentworth is an expert on using defamation writs to silence his critics. He sued the Sydney Morning Herald over a piece involving an allegations about an ex-girlfriend's cat. He went after the Australian Financial Review because of an article calling him 'part polymath, part sociopath'. He has a long track record of using defamation writs to silence free speech.