House debates

Monday, 11 September 2023

Private Members' Business

Freedom of Speech

6:37 pm

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | Hansard source

In Australia we live in a free and equal society, or at least that's what governments over the past 100 years have striven to achieve for all their citizens. Freedom to form our own opinions, freedom to seek information and freedom to ask questions are all tenets of a democratic society, yet this bill seeks directly to negate that. As members of the National Party, we maintain a strong sense of central values. These include the preservation of the rights of the individual and equality of opportunity for all; the preservation of freedom of the press, radio, television and means of communication; the preservation of freedom of speech; and the strong belief that governments should provide a framework for individual growth, not control.

This bill flies directly in the face of these values. These aren't just National Party values; these are the values of everyday, ordinary Australians. Not only does it threaten freedom of speech; it assigns government as the ultimate approver of all information that is classified a fact. This mirrors the ideals of some communist countries or those under dictatorship. It is not what we, as a federal government or as a country, aspire to. Of grave concern is the fact that the definition of 'misinformation' is so broad that it could capture almost any statement made by Australians in the context of political debate, and the government of the day, as the ultimate deciders of what is classified as 'misinformation', can effectively censor those who disagree with them.

This bill is literally giving licence to any government—and I warn the other side: any government—who disagrees with them. The bill is literally giving power for information. It is a terrifying thought. And that's not just my opinion or that of my colleagues. This is the opinion of the Human Rights Commissioner, civil liberties groups, the Law Council of Australia and the media union—the very bodies that advise the federal government when it is forming policy. How can we now ignore these important institutions? On one hand, this government is obsessed with forming a lobby advisory body and labelling it 'the Voice', while on the other hand it completely ignores existing advisory bodies and seeks to silence the voices of all Australian citizens. The Human Rights Commission's submission states:

… there are examples around the world of information being opportunistically labelled as 'misinformation' or 'disinformation' to delegitimise alternative opinions and justify censorship.

Commissioner Lorraine Finlay further offers the concern that the bill:

… risks enabling unpopular or controversial opinions or beliefs to be subjectively labelled as misinformation or disinformation, and censored as a result.

The exclusion of authorised government content from being deemed as misinformation:

… fails to acknowledge the reality that misinformation and disinformation can come from government.

These are direct quotes from the very commission the government is obligated to submit each piece of legislation to—the gatekeepers of our Australian human rights.

As a former lawyer, I am personally well accustomed to taking direction from the Law Council of Australia. They echo the concerns submitted by the Human Rights Commission and go a step further, stating:

The risk is that disfavoured opinions might come to be labelled and regulated as 'misinformation' …

Words and definitions matter. There is no body more acutely aware of this than the Law Council of Australia.

I will conclude with a quote from a message Harry S Truman delivered to Congress in August 1950. He said:

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.


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