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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1670


Senator LUDWIG (Queensland) (18:00): I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

I rise to talk about the Australian Law Reform Commission final and summary reports, Traditional rights and freedoms—encroachments by Commonwealth laws. I commend the reports as exceptional documents that very much go through all of the traditional rights and freedoms that are encroached on by Commonwealth laws in a fashion that is both comprehensive and well researched. However—and this is not a criticism of any of the contributions or submissions and all of the people who worked very hard to produce the reports—this is what I would call the Bolt report. Ultimately, this was about Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General, trying to justify why Mr Andrew Bolt got it so wrong. The Law Reform Commission do go to that particular issue in the reports, and I will come to that shortly.

Before I do, it is worth remembering that in Australia there are limitations on freedom of expression. The Australian Constitution does not expressly protect freedom of expression, although we are a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is many a case where there are clear limitations, and those limitations are across a broad spectrum of legislation—defamation, discrimination and antivilification; classification and censorship; at the criminal end, treason or urging violence, the old sedition type penalties; and disclosure of public information, whistleblowing—for which there are now protections—and public interest disclosure. All of those have legislation in place which provides protections and do not permit unfettered, free speech in that area.

Coming to the whole report, which the government commissioned, there is a section dealing with the Racial Discrimination Act; and, in fairness to the ALRC, who produced this report, they do a comprehensive analysis of the area. They do get to a very telling phrase when they look at section 18C of that act:

Australian racial vilification laws have long been the subject of academic and other criticism.

It goes on:

The ALRC has not established whether s 18C of the RDA has, in practice, caused unjustifiable interferences with freedom of speech. However, it appears that pt IIA of the RDA, of which s 18C forms a part, would benefit from more thorough review in relation to freedom of speech.

This was a report commissioned by the government to uphold their view that section 18C should be changed, notwithstanding that Mr Abbott backflipped on it when he was a Prime Minister and wiped Senator Brandis on it as well. Even this report commissioned by the government does not concur with Senator Brandis's view. He will get some comfort out of it. They have tried very, very hard to throw him a lifeline. But all have thrown him is a cotton thread to grasp onto. It will not support him; I have no doubt about that.

The final report of the ALRC into this matter highlights, I think, that Senator Brandis was on a hobbyhorse and that, wrongly, he was supporting Bolt. When you look at the case that was lost by Bolt, the real kicker is that the section 18C issue is not about Bolt. When you look at how that has worked for almost 20 years, Bolt is a distraction. Bolt was not liable merely because he offended; he was liable because he failed to establish the case.

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted.