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Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Page: 139

Senator BARNETT (6:20 PM) —I stand tonight to support this government’s legislation and to respond to some of the comments made from the opposition benches. I note that Senator Nettle has referred to the imposition on free speech resulting from this legislation, and in one way she is right. But in another way she is wrong. She is wrong because it is important to secure the safety and security of the Australian people—that is, Australian families and Australian children. This legislation is designed to strike a balance. The government believes, and I believe, that freedom of expression and freedom of speech are maintained in this legislation in an appropriate balance. I will speak to that a little later.

The report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs into the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (Terrorist Material) Bill 2007 is a public document and was tabled in July 2007. As chair of that committee, I want to thank the secretariat, Jackie Morris and her team, for their work in preparing the report and for their assistance. I would also like to thank Senator Crossin and the other members of the committee, including the participating member Senator Nettle. I thank her for her involvement and participation. I also wish to place on record my thanks to the witnesses who appeared at our hearing in Sydney on 17 July and to all those who presented evidence to the committee. We appreciate it.

In speaking in support of the bill, I refer to the Attorney-General’s second reading speech in which he summarises the concerns as follows:

This bill will improve the ability of our laws to prevent the circulation of material which advocates the doing of terrorist acts.

…            …            …

Currently there is too much uncertainty around whether the existing classification laws adequately capture such material.

The Attorney-General says that the classification scheme is a cooperative national scheme and that he would prefer to see these provisions in the national code and guidelines. Importantly, the Attorney-General first sought state and territory agreement to changes to the classification laws in July 2006—over 12 months ago. In his second reading speech, he states:

To date, they have been reluctant to respond positively to my proposals. I am not prepared to wait indefinitely to address this problem.

Senator Ludwig spoke to the bill and indicated support for the bill, subject to some amendments. I broadly support the comments made by Senator Ludwig in support of the bill. But there are some aspects of his contribution which I wish to oppose and these relate to the involvement of the state and territory censorship ministers. The Attorney-General has expressed and requested a cooperative approach to this matter, starting over 12 months ago in July 2006. But the Attorney-General is rightly aggrieved and upset with their lack of action on material which advocates terrorism. Surely this has to be a top priority for all Australians no matter what level of government.

Our censorship laws through the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (Terrorist Material) Bill 2007 improves the ability of our laws to prevent the circulation of material which advocates the doing of terrorist acts. But it should be remembered that the classification review system that we have in this country has traditionally been a cooperative one. The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, has demonstrated leadership on this matter to ensure proper balance. In a news release issued by the Attorney-General on 27 July 2007 he expressed:

... strong disappointment that agreement could not be reached with State and Territory Censorship Ministers to toughen laws that deal with materials advocating acts of terror.

The release went on:

Mr Ruddock said the failure of the states to recognise the need to do everything possible to stop the recruitment of the impressionable and vulnerable into terrorist activity, left him with no choice but to act independently.

“Prevention is the new terrorism battleground and I am not prepared to wait indefinitely for Labor states to ensure this kind of material is removed from circulation ...

“As I have said before, should an attack happen in Australia I want to be able to look in the eyes of those affected and know I did everything I could to stop terrorism and the recruitment of the impressionable and vulnerable into terrorist activity.”

Those on this side of the chamber fully support the Attorney-General in his efforts to act independently because he could not obtain the agreement and the cooperation of the relevant state and territory censorship ministers. For whatever reason—and I believe it is probably political—they did not come to the table with a cooperative and positive approach. I believe it is to their shame that they did not address this matter. It is in the public interest to protect the impressionable, the vulnerable and those who may be swayed in some way by material that is before them. This legislation, in my view, does the right thing to ensure that material promoting acts of terror will be removed from public availability.

There has been widespread community concern about the availability of books and videos which advocate terrorist acts. The government considers that such material should not be available. It is not completely clear whether this kind of material would be picked up under current classification laws. There is some doubt about that and I think all of us in this chamber accept that. So we need to act. We cannot wait any longer. The proposal is intended to get this inflammatory material advocating terrorism out of circulation to protect the vulnerable and the impressionable in our society. It is not, as Senator Nettle indicated in her contribution, about curtailing freedom of expression. We are not about that; we support freedom of expression. It is an important foundation ingredient of freedom in Australia. Freedom of expression is one of the underlying principles of Australian society. Merely holding and asserting strongly opposing views should not attract censorship. Our laws must strike an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and the need to protect the community and provide safety and security. That balance is needed. I believe the legislation before us has an appropriate balance.

The committee considered the proposed legislation in some detail—and, again, I thank all those senators involved in putting their views forward. Page 5 of the committee report states:

Proposed subsection 9A(3) provides an exemption for some material that might otherwise be considered to advocate the doing of a terrorist act as follows:

A publication, film or computer game does not advocate the doing of a terrorist act if it depicts or describes a terrorist act, but the depiction or description could reasonably be considered to be done merely as part of public discussion or debate or as entertainment or satire.

We had submissions from, for example, the Australian Library and Information Association as well as from a range of other groups—the Writers Guild and those types of groups—and this is important for them. The Attorney-General’s Department, in its response to some of the questions asked at the committee hearing, noted:

The original proposal outlined in the discussion paper has been modified to address concerns expressed about its scope, and in particular a new provision, 9A(3), was introduced to make it clear that material that does no more than contribute to public discussion or debate or is no more than entertainment or satire is not material to which this provision is intended to apply. The explanatory memorandum clearly states that the provision is only intended to capture material which goes further than that and actually advocates the doing of a terrorist act.

I failed to mention this earlier, but the government has listened. A public discussion paper was put out for public consultation. Responses were received and the government and the Attorney-General’s Department have acted on that and inserted this exemption under section 9A(3).

I am sure Senator Ludwig, and perhaps others on the other side, may refer to the reference in subclause (c) of 9A(2), which says:

... it directly praises the doing of a terrorist act in circumstances where there is a risk that such praise might have the effect of leading a person (regardless of his or her age or any mental impairment (within the meaning of section 7.3 of the Criminal Code) that the person might suffer) to engage in a terrorist act.

There will be some discussion about this. I am sure Senator Ludwig and others will be addressing it with an amendment, but it was the view of the committee that there could be some confusion by the inclusion of the words ‘regardless of his or her age or any mental impairment’, and I acknowledge that as the chairman of the committee who has signed off on the report. But the Attorney-General’s Department has provided assurances with respect to the clarity of the legislation. There are more lawyers there than sitting on these benches, and greater minds than me have accepted the fact that that is not required and may, in fact, diminish the effectiveness of the legislation. All in all, the committee believes that the legislation should be passed, and I think it is well worth while.

In making some concluding comments, I want to refer to the concerns that even New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma had about Sheik Mohammed, the leader of the Global Islamic Youth Centre in Liverpool, in Sydney’s west, when he was inciting terrorism. As reported by the Daily Telegraph and AAP on 18 January this year:

Mr Iemma said he had called on the Attorney-General (Philip Ruddock) to do whatever was necessary to have Sheik Feiz Mohammed’s DVD withdrawn from sale.

‘This DVD goes a lot further than vilification,’ Mr Iemma said in Sydney.

‘The sort of incitement that’s taking place, or that the DVD encourages, is incitement to acts of violence and acts of terror.

‘I will take the advice of the Attorney-General but there are specific laws in the Commonwealth jurisdiction on the sale of this material and that’s why we’ll be seeking the cooperation of the federal Attorney-General to take whatever steps are necessary.’

That is exactly what the Hon. Philip Ruddock is doing; he is taking the steps that are necessary to ensure the removal of this type of material. The article continues:

The sheik delivers his hateful rants on a collection of DVDs sold in Australia and overseas.

‘This is just more disgusting commentary from a sheik who has no understanding of the values that we live by in this country,’ Mr Iemma said.

‘I’ve called on the Commonwealth Attorney-General to take whatever necessary steps are available to try and have this DVD withdrawn (from sale).

So there we have it. We have a Labor New South Wales Premier asking the federal Attorney-General to take whatever steps are necessary, and the steps necessary are the legislation that is before us.

Other concerns were expressed to our committee and they are set out in our report. We heard from Mr Jeremy Jones, Director of International and Community Affairs at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. You can understand their concerns. They invited the committee to go further by having tougher legislation to thwart that type of material being put into the public domain, and I can understand it when those types of comments are made by whoever and get into the public arena.

I think the balance is right. There has been public discussion. There has been a draft discussion paper. Feedback has been obtained from the public. We have had a Senate committee report. Sadly, the state and territory censorship ministers have been dilatory and have not cooperated, so it is important. I thank the Attorney-General, the Hon. Philip Ruddock, for his leadership.

In closing, this issue is not dissimilar to the philosophy and initiative of this government to protect children and families online with the more recent $180-plus million initiative by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan. It is a fantastic initiative to protect Australian families online with internet filtering initiatives across the board. It is consistent with this government’s policy of protecting, supporting and encouraging families in every way possible. On that front, I thank Senator Coonan, her office and her department for their leadership in that arena, because it is a great initiative that is consistent with this government’s philosophy of protecting, supporting and doing its best to protect the welfare of Australian families.