House debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


Online Safety Bill 2021; Consideration of Senate Message

4:53 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the amendments be agreed to.

This is the final stage in a process under which the Morrison government is giving effect to a commitment we took to the 2019 election that we would legislate an online safety act, which would consolidate and build on the very significant reforms we have made in the area of online safety since our Liberal-National government first came to power in 2013. We introduced and passed legislation to establish what was then called the Children's eSafety Commissioner and established a scheme to deal with the cyberbullying of Australian children. That scheme has worked effectively. We subsequently expanded the responsibilities of the office and changed its title to be the eSafety Commissioner, with responsibility for matters relating to online safety concerning all Australians. We passed legislation to deal with the terrible problem of the unauthorised sharing of intimate images. When that occurs, victims find it an absolutely devastating thing. And it is something that women overwhelmingly are the victims of. That has also been an effective regime. We introduced legislation following the abhorrent Christchurch mosque attack, which involved live streaming of the murder of over 50 people—absolutely abhorrent and appalling. We introduced legislation to deal with abhorrent violent material online, and that's a matter that the eSafety Commissioner has had responsibility for for some time now.

In the bill that has now passed the Senate and that previously passed the House, we've added extra provisions, including the establishment of a scheme to deal with the serious cyberabuse of Australian adults. We are continuing to improve the protections and the resources that the eSafety Commissioner has. This is about assisting Australians to have the protection of the rule of law when they interact in the digital town square, just as people rightly expect, and have the benefit of, the rule of law and its protections when they interact in the physical town square. The government will be supporting the amendments that were made in the Senate last night.

I also want to take this opportunity to make a statement about the way that the eSafety Commissioner will deal with its code-making power and the approach it will take to prioritising matters to be the subject of codes. It's the primary responsibility of the digital technology industry to create products and services that Australians can use safely. That's why, under the bill that's before the House now, sections of the industry will be required to create new and strengthened industry codes which meet the government's expectations on behalf of the Australian community to keep users of online services safe. Those codes may require service providers to provide end users with access to technological solutions to help them limit access to class 1 and class 2 material. They may also require industry to provide customers with the option of subscribing to a filtered internet carriage service. eSafety will develop and release a position paper to guide code development. The paper will outline expectations, setting clear boundaries for industry on minimum requirements for what eSafety wishes to see in the codes. Through this process, as well as in the annual publication of regulatory priorities, eSafety will focus on the most harmful material as a priority.

One of the reasons we're taking a risk-informed approach is to support industry to focus its efforts towards products that have a higher chance of facilitating harm. The government understands this is a significant task for the industry, but it's an important one. It's part of the legislative scheme and we expect the technology industry to step up its game to make sure that its products are safe. I commend the amendments to the House.

4:57 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications and Cyber Security) Share this | | Hansard source

The government cites this Online Safety Bill as evidence of its commitment to the online safety of Australian women. I say to the House that you can see the commitment of the government to the online safety of women in this country every day in this chamber: when they are given an option to condemn the actions of the member for Bowman and they refuse. You can see the evidence of their commitment to the online safety of Australian women every day in this chamber when the member for Bowman comes and sits in this chamber and is still in his role as the Chair of the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training.

We pursued this bill through Senate estimates. We asked, 'What is the purpose of this bill?' This is a bill designed to stop campaigns of online harassment, bullying and intimidation of women like the multiyear campaign conducted by the member for Bowman. We asked officials in the department of the minister sitting across the table, the Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts, to describe and evaluate the kind of behaviour that the member for Bowman has engaged in. We asked, 'Is a bill like this something that could probably do something about this kind of behaviour?' Their response was:

…absolutely the intention behind this new bill, when it's passed, is to provide an avenue for people experiencing that kind of activity—to have a pathway to make complaints and have someone able to take some action.

Don't look for those opposite to take action on this, because the divisions that took place before this bill was called on were the 41st time those opposite had been given an opportunity to take action on this. Forty-one times we've given those opposite the opportunity to show their commitment to the online safety of Australian women and to force the member for Bowman to honour his commitment to stand down as the chair of the education committee. Forty-one times they've marched in, followed the party line and defended him.

Not only that, they have repeatedly gagged Labor women who have come into this chamber and sought to hold them to account. Indeed, just in this term they have gagged the member for Newcastle, the member for Cowan, the member for Jagajaga, the member for Corangamite, the member for Lalor, the member for Cooper, the member for Sydney, the member for Franklin, the member for Parramatta, the member for Dunkley, the member for Eden-Monaro, the member for Macquarie, the member for Griffith, the member for Werriwa, the member for Brand and, just now, the member for Canberra. Not only that, they've had to put up with the member for Mackellar mansplaining to them the way that microphones work in this chamber.

This government's attitude to the online safety of women is clear for all to see. It's just like everything with this government: they're there for the announcement; they're not there for the delivery. You always have to check the fine print with this government. This Prime Minister is like the bloke you meet on the beach at Bali selling you the genuine Rolex watch. The warranty is going to come in the mail when you get back from your holiday, right? He's like a travelling snake oil salesman moving through regional Queensland. He's flogging the miracle cure, saying, 'This'll cure what ails you,' and moving on to the next town by the time the miracle cure is shown to be bunk.

You can't trust anything this government says. They don't follow through. Their actions don't meet their words. The member for Bowman said that he would resign. The Prime Minister said that he would resign. The Prime Minister said that his actions were totally unacceptable. Since that time, the member for Bowman has come into this chamber and apologised in this chamber, grovellingly—although he didn't seem to be able to articulate what he had done wrong. He went immediately from this chamber to Facebook, where he said that he didn't know what he was apologising for and it wasn't really an apology. He then went to empathy training. What he learnt in empathy training was to come out of empathy training and recant on his apology in totality.

A mate observed his behaviour, thought it was a bit weird and said he should go to see a doctor, and the member for Bowman had the hide to blame his appalling trolling, bullying and harassment campaigns online on ADHD. This is a real medical condition. People with ADHD are responsible for their behaviour. It's not an excuse. It doesn't cause people to maintain dozens of fake Facebook pages under the guise of community groups and local news organisations, harassing local constituents. That's not a symptom of ADHD. That's a system of an out-of-control member whom those opposite will do nothing to hold to account.

What has happened in this chamber in response to the member for Bowman's actions is a disgrace. A great Australian once said that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. This government accepts the member for Bowman's behaviour, and we see it writ large today in the re-election of the Deputy Prime Minister. Australian women have no friend in this government.

5:03 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor welcomes the passage of the Online Safety Bill 2021 as amended. The safety of Australians is paramount, and Labor has been engaged in constructive good-faith negotiations to improve this bill. So Labor supports this bill as amended in the Senate, but we are concerned about the time it has taken to get here, as well as the lack of process on some key issues in the areas of online safety, such as addressing online hate speech that targets incitement to violence for groups as distinct from individuals.

It's coming up to three years since the October 2018 Report of the statutory review of the Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015 and the review of schedules 5 and 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (online content scheme) by Lynelle Briggs AO, who recommended a new online safety act. Since then, this minister has repeatedly spruiked the hitherto non-existent online safety act in response to concerns about online harms, including online hate speech and racism in Australia following the Christchurch terrorist atrocity and graphic online content in the wake of a self-harm video circulating on social media. Labor notes that the minister was slow to release the exposure draft of legislation for consultation last year, then rushed the introduction of this bill into parliament just eight business days after consultation on the exposure draft had concluded. There were hundreds of submissions, but the reality is that the rush to introduction did undermine some stakeholder confidence in the consultation process. We have had this delay since 2018 and then a rush to introduction.

Furthermore, this bill interacts with Australia's classification laws, yet the review of Australian classification regulation is also delayed on this minister's watch and has fallen out of step with this bill. Meanwhile, the government blocks further progress by sitting on a report that, if released, could genuinely assist in bettering Australia's approach to online safety.

This House should know that this government still has not released the report of an expert working group which was convened by the eSafety Commissioner and in which industry had participated. In the report of the inquiry into age verification for online wagering and online pornography, entitled Protecting the age of innocence, by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, Labor members requested that the government reclassify the report and make it public so the broad range of stakeholders supportive of online safety may have the benefit of that work. Online safety is an area of bipartisanship. It's a matter that goes to the safety of Australians in our modern world. So Labor is disappointed that the government continues to withhold this report, which remains cabinet in confidence, and again we encourage its release.

As I said, the safety of Australians online is of paramount importance. Labor did not oppose these bills in the House, on the basis that government amendments would be forthcoming. So we did engage in constructive good faith to understand and address the concerns we had with these bills and the concerns of industry. Overall, the engagement has been productive. The opposition appreciates the attention of the minister, the department, the commissioner and staff to Labor's questions and suggestions. Some of Labor's concerns have been addressed with proposed government amendments to the bill as well as with the supplementary EM and the further addendum to the EM. Some of Labor's amendments to the bill were supported in the Senate, and Labor thanks those members who supported them, to improve the legislation and the strength of the framework.

For three budgets in a row since 2019 I have asked the minister about what he is doing to address racist hate speech online. For three years running I have not had an answer. In 2019 he made a general reference to work on the Online Safety Act, in 2020 he simply failed to answer and in 2021 he failed to answer it again. So I ask once again: Minister: what steps have you taken, including in consultation with the Attorney-General and other relevant ministers, to address the issue of online racism in Australia?

When I first asked this question in 2019 it was in reference to the terrorist atrocity committed by an Australian citizen in Christchurch and serious warnings about the rise of right-wing extremism, online hate speech and racism in Australia. I asked the minister if he would ensure that Australians, including Australians of Muslim faith, are kept safe online by amending Australia's e-safety laws or by driving the adoption of an EU-style code of conduct for countering illegal hate speech online. In 2019 the minister responded to this question by saying: 'I make the point that we are committed to introducing a new online safety act.' As I said, in 2020 and again in 2021, the minister simply failed to answer my question.

In late 2020, the minister finally released the exposure draft of the Online Safety Bill for public consultation. (Extension of time granted) In its submission to the exposure draft, the Online Hate Prevention Institute stated:

Significant online harm also results from hate and incitement to violence that targets segments of the community, as distinct from the cyberbullying of individuals. These is a significant gap of coverage in this area. Attributes such as race, religion, mental or physical illness or disability, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, intersex status and others are used to target segments of the community. In the most serious cases online hate against these groups involves incitement not only to hate, but also to violence. Preventing online harms requires action well before it reaches that point.

and that:

… a takedown power covering incitement to hate, against both individuals and groups, is urgently needed.

Minister, does the Online Safety Bill now before the parliament address racist hate speech and incitement to violence that targets groups as distinct from individuals? And, if not, why not?

5:09 pm

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Online Safety Bill 2021 and to endorse every word of the contribution of the member for Gellibrand. Minister, how is it that you would expect women across this country to believe this government's commitment to online safety when this government won't do anything about the member for Bowman and his admitted online activities, and when women across this country have seen constituents of the member for Bowman go on television and subject themselves to exposure across the country in order to call out his behaviour, which, in one case, caused a women to be suicidal?

How is it that this government thinks that it can sit there with a straight face—all of the members of the government—and say, 'Do as we say but not as a member of our government does'?

I'm rising today more in sorrow than in anger. I've been angry and the women in my community have been angry at the way the member for Bowman has behaved and at the way the Prime Minister and the ministers in this government have behaved, in their failure to make their own accountable for their online behaviour. But something has shifted, at least, in me today. Now I'm just so sad to have to stand here, because I know that there are people on your side of the chamber, Minister Fletcher—and some of them are in the chamber at the moment—who have a deep commitment to online safety, who have themselves experienced significant online harassment and who want change. I know that, and I can see members of the government in the chamber who are in that position. I feel sad for them that they have to sit there and vote time and time again to protect the member for Bowman.

But it goes beyond the member for Bowman, doesn't it? He's now become a symbol of this government's refusal to take responsibility and hold to account people who are on the government side—an example of the lack of consequences of bad behaviour for people who are part of this government. It is sad for democracy. It's sad for the people of Australia when their trust in government is diminished time and time again when they watch people who are supposed to be the leaders of this country refusing to act in a way that families in Australia do every single day. When a member of their family behaves badly, they say to them, 'You have to accept the consequences of your behaviour.' Parents say, 'If it hurts me that I have to punish you for your behaviour, I have to accept that, because taking responsibility and being held responsible is part of being a good citizen.'

In terms of online safety generally—and the government's failure to do something as simple as to hold the member for Bowman to account for his own words, in that he said he would resign from his parliamentary roles, let alone holding him to account for his behaviour—let's put this debate into some wider context. Let's talk about the domestic violence crisis in this country. Over and over again, people on both sides of this chamber acknowledge that the domestic violence crisis and the fact that one woman is killed every week by their partner are manifestations of gender inequality, of disrespect for women and of behaviours like those that we've seen from the member for Bowman, who has admitted them. They start off as sexual harassment and trolling and lead to a culture in this country where one woman a week is killed. That's why you have to make him be responsible. It's that important. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.