Senate debates

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Statements by Senators

Freedom of Speech

1:15 pm

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

I wasn't going to, but I need to devote a couple of minutes to reflect on the presentation made by Senator Bartlett, because he left me somewhat confused, arguing that, for example, energy generation ownership in his home state of Queensland should be concentrated in the hands of the government. He forgot to mention that energy generation ownership in the state of Queensland is concentrated in the hands of the government. As to his argument that, if we can get it concentrated in public hands, it will inhibit gouging, he forgot to mention the unfortunate fact that we are being gouged in Queensland, more than anywhere else in the country, by a government who own the energy generators. That was a confusing statement. He should have given that in two parts.

But that's not why I'm rising today. I want to devote my time to speak about what I see as an emerging deterioration of free speech here in our own Senate. We experienced the speech provided by Senator Anning and all of the resultant motions and efforts that have been made to attack him and the content of his speech. I won't spend any time on whether one supports part or all of Senator Anning's speech, but I support 100 per cent, as should we all, his right to speak. Others may have a view that he could and should have expressed himself differently on some subjects; nonetheless, where can we have free and fearless speech in relation to subjects that, in our own minds, are of national interest if not here in this chamber and in the other place?

We then saw the example where I moved a general business notice of motion which in effect is criticising the changes of law relating to abortion from the government of my home state of Queensland. For those who are not familiar with my home state, we have very settled criminal laws that have been in place to protect principally women. All abortions are obviously related to the female gender. I think in 1976 or 1977 there were changes to the laws, and since that time there has been only one prosecution amid quite literally hundreds of thousands of abortions—a practice that for the largest part I don't agree with. We can all get caught in the debate about exceptional circumstances. If one day we get to a point in society when we are just concentrating on the merit of exceptional circumstances, I'll probably feel my work here is done, and I'll quietly not engage in the debate.

The fact of the matter is I moved a motion in this place that criticises the state government's intention to make changes to the legislation up there. These are not just adjustments; these are radical changes. These will remove all of the protections, many of which are for the women who find themselves in this unenviable position, struggling with a decision around the termination of a pregnancy. They have foreshadowed that they will include, for example, the ability to prosecute a medical practitioner who refuses to perform an abortion or facilitate it for a patient. Think about that: state sponsored prosecution of a medical practitioner, who has taken the Hippocratic oath, which is very clear on the question of preservation of life. If they conscientiously object, they run the risk of being prosecuted as a result of their objection.

It was a motion to this floor like many hundreds—in fact, possibly thousands—since I've been here. I don't have a memory of a challenge of formality on a motion simply because some found it controversial or some found it inconvenient. I've seen challenges to formality in relation to motions that convention has long said ought not be debated in this chamber—motions relating to matters of foreign policy and the like—and I support that, but I've not seen formality denied just because the motion offends the senses of some.

I won't labour on this, but I promise you that for the next year you're going to get one or two every day, as long as I can change the language in them sufficiently, and you can deny formality every time. As you know, I have a contingent motion and I'll just rise to my feet and make the same argument every day until finally someone surrenders. I will also be denying formality on motions of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens every day now, consistent with their argument as to why formality should be denied. I'll do that until such time as we can sit around the table, smoke a bit of peace pipe and decide how we might allow ourselves to return to an environment in this place that allows free speech to flow even if you are offended by the free speech of others. Using procedures in this place to inhibit free speech has to be the most offensive practice when having regard to this chamber of freedom, where we should be able to raise issues that are important to us and, in many cases, to many hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Australians.

Where to from here? I often regard chambers like this and the other place as being the end of the cul-de-sac. People want to bring change to their nation. They want to bring a policy change. They want to bring political change. If not here, where do we send them to be able to achieve that? If not here, where we can and ought to have free speech to address and debate critical issues, where do we send them? In nations where that doesn't exist you send them back to the streets. That's where you send them. You send them back to the streets. I don't want to scaremonger. We've got a very stable society here in Australia, and I don't think that that is even a slight risk. But in the fullness of time, if they cannot come to the political chambers of their country and have their issues presented, to test who sits where so that they can continue to strategise and engineer how they may influence legislators like us, then where do you want them to go? Out to Twitter or Flickr? I don't know the names of these things but there are lots of them apparently. If you know how to operate your device you can get into those chambers where there's a freedom to say whatever you like without having to produce any evidence that gives effect to it. We have seen the effects here with Senator Hanson—

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