Monday, 11 September 2023
Private Members' Business
Freedom of Speech
Another day, another relatively hollow debate courtesy of the coalition, who've decided that their approach to parliament and public debate will be characterised by negativity and sometimes hypocrisy, when the Australian people have made it pretty clear that they're sick of divisive and obstructive politics. Before the 2022 election, the former communications minister said:
The Morrison Government will introduce legislation this year to combat harmful disinformation and misinformation online.
As I understand it, the Liberal Party website to this day says:
… a re-elected Liberal Coalition Government will introduce stronger laws to combat harmful disinformation and misinformation online by giving the media regulator stronger information-gathering and enforcement powers.
That valid intention was informed by the 2019 ACCC inquiry into digital platforms, and yet here we are tonight: the coalition come along, as they do on most days, and carry on as if an exposure draft of a bill that seeks to advance exactly the kinds of protection that the coalition itself had pledged to deliver is some kind of outrage.
You might think there would be some acknowledgement in the motion that this is one of the dozens of areas in which the coalition, after a decade in government, did nothing, but there isn't. It's disappointing that there isn't more calm and semireasonable preparedness by the coalition to be constructive about the task at hand. Instead, we get sloganeering and negativity—'bin the bill'—in relation to a bill that hasn't actually been introduced to the parliament. And the notice of motion, as the previous speaker noted, doesn't contain anything that might suggest the coalition has given thought to solving the problem, which they identified but did nothing about.
There's no question Australia needs up-to-date and fit-for-purpose protection when it comes to the potential for serious and harmful misinformation, particularly through digital platforms that are operated by massive, foreign owned tech companies. But let me be clear about my fundamental view on this: any regulation of speech and public conversation needs to be done with great care. Any regulation of speech and public conversation needs to keep freedom of speech and freedom of association as its touchstone.
The reason you have an exposure draft process is so that input can be provided and improvements can be considered. That's what's occurred in the life of this parliament to date in lots of areas, but often without much participation from the coalition—in fact, in some cases it occurred despite them. The government has worked hard to begin advancing all those things that didn't occur over the previous ten years: action on climate change, integrity improvements, repairing the social safety net, putting downward pressure on energy prices, getting wages moving again, and investing in social and affordable housing. But none of those carefully measured solutions have involved the input of the coalition, who just want to say no to everything.
Even with our central and abiding commitment to free speech, we know there are certain kinds of communication that need to be regulated. There's plenty of conversation and information that might be controversial or represent different political views or even present strange, unpopular, obnoxious or hard to like ideas. All of that is still deserving of protection as part of a healthy and diverse public square discussion. But we know that some information is disseminated with the intention of doing harm, advocating hate or violence, facilitating the abuse of children, interfering in elections or doing harm in critical areas like public health.
We must have the means in Australia of protecting our democratic system and our shared wellbeing from intentionally dangerous and harmful disinformation and misinformation. That's why the government has picked up the work that the previous government didn't do, by producing an exposure draft of a bill that seeks to build on the industry's existing voluntary code. What does it seek to achieve? Hey presto, surprise, surprise! Greater transparency from the big tech platform operators, greater compliance with the commitments that are already in the industry code and systemic improvements when it comes to managing and responding to complaints.
It doesn't give ACMA the power to remove content. It strengthens the expectations on the industry itself and the clarity and accountability around those expectations. It strengthens the regulator's ability to act and enforce standards. That is at the core of what's needed in this space: sensible standards and mechanisms to be able to respond to the harmful and dangerous misuse of the enormous influence that exists through digital platforms, while, of course, protecting free speech and robust debate.
If the coalition wants to engage in a sensible and constructive fashion about how to refine and settle an effective framework, that would be very welcome. But all that this notice of motion has shown in the debate tonight is that we're going to keep getting relentless, relatively pointless negativity from a group of people that promised all sorts of things for 10 years and did absolutely nothing.