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Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Page: 2725


Mr TONY SMITH (Casey) (21:50): On the wall of my office here I have a map, as many members would have, that has been published by the NGO Freedom House. This map of freedom shows what a precious commodity democracy really is. It is often said that freedom is not free and, as we look overseas, we see people without liberty, putting life and limb at risk to try and win it. And we always need to remind ourselves of the precious commodity that democracy really is.

Here at home it can be easy to take those freedoms for granted, and that is why we must always work to ensure our democracy is always the best it can be. Thomas Jefferson put it well when he wrote that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. The threat to freedom does not always come from obvious conflicts. Democracy can also be undermined very slowly, in a different way, by internal trends that are incremental and in fact even unconscious—for instance, the glacial creep of the nanny state that eats away at liberties bit by bit, rule by rule, statute by statute. One of the worrisome manifestations of this creep has appeared of late in the form of soft censorship, from our local councils to the federal government. In my own region the Yarra Ranges Shire Council, a good council, recently published a set of draft regulations that would, I hate to say, be ludicrous if they were not so serious. If enacted they would prohibit the distribution of handbills or electoral material, other than on polling days, without a council permit. They would outlaw the delivery of a public address without prior permission through a permit. The implications of these proposals of course are truly Orwellian. In effect the council would be licensing political expression. Anyone wishing to exercise their right of free speech would require a permit and over time the temptation for future councils to deny political oxygen to their critics would create a clear and present danger of abuse. These regulations would also mean that anyone wanting to express public disapproval of someone like me would need a permit. You might expect me to say, 'Good on them!' for that proposal, but I say, 'Bad.' We all know here that copping criticism from those who elected us is a very healthy and necessary part of the job description. The staff at the Yarra Ranges council who drafted these regulations are good people, but they are good people who have shown bad judgment on this occasion. The point is that it speaks volumes that the instinctive response to the problems of local government was to wheel out this form of permit based censorship, and to even think that such measures are consistent with free and open government shows how far the termites have spread and how well they have dined.

But this judgment is not solely confined to councils. Here, at the Commonwealth level, the recent independent inquiry into the media—as we know, chaired by retired Federal Court judge Finkelstein—proposed the creation of a national news media council with coercive powers over the press. The envisaged council would wield the statutory authority to enforce news standards across all news media outlets. Adding insult to injury, it is also advanced that intrusive government control over the media in the form advised is required because the Australian people apparently do not know what is good for them. That might sound harsh, but there is no other way to interpret section 4.10 of the inquiry report, which blithely informs us:

... readers are not in a position to make an appropriately informed judgment.

I regard this as patronising, condescending rubbish. (Time expired)