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Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Page: 18

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (10:12 AM) —I thank the members for Brisbane and Indi for their contributions to the debate on the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (Terrorist Material) Bill 2007. I particularly thank the member for Indi because I think her contribution was very measured, sensible and a constructive contribution to a debate that is of the utmost importance. I will come back to the member for Brisbane shortly, but let me just make it very clear that governments do have a responsibility to do everything possible to improve security to deal with potential terrorism threats in Australia. Waiting for a terrorist attack to occur is unacceptable, and I have been concerned for some time about the influences within our society that lead people into terrorism. We need our laws to deal with material that encourages people to commit terrorist attacks, and that is what this bill is about.

The Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment (Terrorist Material) Bill 2007 amends the Classification Act so that material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act must be refused classification. Material that has been refused classification cannot be legally sold, exhibited or displayed in Australia. There is significant doubt and uncertainty whether the current classification laws adequately catch material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. What is clear is that something needs to be done. I would like to point out that this bill was not how I wanted to resolve the issue. I made it clear in my second reading speech that this bill would not proceed if the state and territory governments did not agree to amendments to the Classification Code and guidelines.

However, the states and territories have been anything but cooperative. I first sought their agreement over a year ago and have continued to press the issue in good faith since then. I was hopeful that agreement could be achieved at the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General meeting in July this year, but unfortunately the states and territories continue to frustrate the process, and I am not willing to indefinitely wait to address this problem. It is disappointing that the Commonwealth has been forced to go it alone on this issue. The states are clearly divided. New South Wales and South Australia indicated their support for the proposal. The National Classification Scheme requires the unanimous support of all governments. That is why the initiative failed. I want to make clear that New South Wales and South Australia did indicate their support. The states and territories are clearly divided on this issue.

In thanking members who have contributed to this debate, let me deal with the member for Brisbane very directly. I am quite disappointed by his amendment. He is not without accurate information in relation to the chronology of events in this matter. I was asked a question by his colleague in the other place—I assume he talks to the shadow Attorney, Senator Ludwig—and I answered on 24 May questions that went to this very issue.

I might table a chronology of events for the benefit of the House. It is a chronology which identifies that what happened in 2005 is that there was a discussion between me and Ray Hadley on radio station 2GB about the sale of books inciting terrorism, our sedition laws and also the classification process. I took steps following that matter back in July 2005 to have the AFP examine eight publications and one film, and they determined that no offences had been committed. The AFP provided material in December to the Classification Board for assessment, and they classified the film ‘PG’ and the publications ‘Unrestricted’. The AFP consulted with the DPP and then examined the material against the recently amended sedition laws. I requested advice and I received that. Separately, I applied to the Classification Review Board for a review of the classification of the eight publications and one film. I wrote to censorship ministers in June 2006, putting them on notice that this was an issue that I thought the censorship ministers should consider. The Classification Review Board did refuse classification for two publications. They reclassified the other six publications ‘Unrestricted’, and the film remained ‘PG’.

So it can be seen that I was very active in dealing with these issues. It can be said quite clearly that it is quite inappropriate to offer any criticism of me, in the form of the amendment, for delaying this matter and sitting on my hands for some two years, as suggested. It is quite inappropriate, given that the member had the chronology available to him, to draw those conclusions.

I notice that in his comments he went on to say that the extent to which academics might be able to access material that is seen to be advocating terrorism, for academic pursuits, is an issue that ought to be addressed. That was an issue that I put on the agenda for censorship ministers to deal with. It was an issue that I thought was appropriate to be examined. I notice that the shadow minister, the member for Brisbane, says that this is not an issue that the Commonwealth should deal with unilaterally and that I should continue to work with the states and territories. So on the one hand he says that I should work with the states and territories and continue to suffer the frustration of their inertia—and I might say that they are very slow to deal with these issues; that is, the praising and advocacy of terrorism acts in material—but on the other hand he says that I should in some way be condemned because I had endeavoured to treat with his Labor colleagues in state and territory governments.

I make it very clear that this is not an issue in which any delay can be sheeted home to me. It is an issue in which there has been very clear frustration of the process by certain Labor attorneys, and that indicates to me quite clearly that the Labor Party across this nation is not serious about dealing with terrorism issues. I was faced with a situation in which I could only get New South Wales and South Australia to support me, and people were coming into this chamber and saying: ‘Look, this is an important measure. You’ve been sitting on your hands. You should’ve been dealing with it and you should be criticised for it.’ And then they foreshadowed an amendment that the opposition intended to move in the Senate—not in this chamber, but in the Senate—which would effectively weaken the measures! They say they support the measures, but then they want to weaken the measures—and they do so very deliberately when they say that they would support an amendment that would effectively delete the measure that says that those who are looking at these issues should have regard to a person’s age and mental impairment when they look at the impact that material advocating terrorism might have on them.

I want to deal with that issue quite deliberately. This bill is not about restricting freedom of speech; it is about ensuring that material advocating terrorist acts is no longer legally available. The bill takes into account submissions received during the widespread consultations. The original proposal was modified to address concerns expressed about its scope. In particular, section 9A(3) of the proposed bill was added to make it clear that material that does no more than contribute to debate or public discussion or is of no more than entertainment value or satire is not material to which this provision is intended to apply. The explanatory memorandum states clearly that the provision is only intended to capture material which goes further than that and actually advocates the doing of a terrorist act. As I said, I did, as always, happily see the bill referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The committee recommended that the bill be amended to delete reference to ‘regardless of his or her age or mental impairment’ from the proposal.

The government considers the amendment proposed by the committee unnecessary. In fact we think it would be highly undesirable because the Classification Scheme requires boards to consider the context of material and its target audience. Paragraph 9A(2)(c) makes certain that, in assessing whether there is a risk of a person engaging in terrorist acts, boards do not inappropriately consider only an average or ordinary person. The fact is that terrorist organisers make material available with a view to encouraging the naive and, in some cases, the mentally impaired to participate in terrorist acts—in particular, suicide bombing. The government believes that if the criteria is pared back in the way proposed by the opposition, the Classification Board and the Classification Review Board will make decisions with reference to whether the material presents a risk to the ordinary or average person. This measure would not be effective if that were adopted, and I would hope that the opposition would reconsider its approach on this matter. Let me make it very clear: this measure would not be effective unless boards consider those who are more vulnerable to this sort of material. I make it very clear that I would not want to be the one who finds that somebody who was mentally impaired picked up some of these messages and set off to carry out a suicide bombing here in Australia—influenced by material of that sort, which we could have done something about.

This is a major issue, as far as I am concerned, with the opposition. They are about putting in place measures that would be inadequate to protect the Australian community. Yet they come in here and say, ‘We’re not opposing the bill.’ It is clear that they see the bill as one that ought to be watered down. If you look at the way in which the Labor Party are looking at these issues across the nation, what you see is that they are clearly divided. We have the New South Wales government saying, ‘Look, we support you.’ The South Australian government says, ‘We support you.’ What does that say about Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, the ACT or even the Northern Territory? What I say is that the Labor Party across this country are clearly divided about the urgency and the need to deal with these issues. They were prepared to frustrate this in the committee process. They have the audacity to come in here and suggest that I have been in some way derelict in my responsibilities because I saw fit not to play what they accuse us of being engaged in—that is, a blame game. But when you sit down and try to talk about the issues and work them through, you find it a very frustrating process. I am deeply disappointed that the opposition want to play around with this sort of issue. They pretend that they are just as concerned about these questions as the government, but they seek to undermine the legislation by amendments and they condone the actions of their colleagues in the states, who clearly were not prepared to come to the party on dealing with these issues.

Finally, I will conclude with some general comments about the scope of the bill. The provisions do set a high hurdle for material to be refused classification. Some have expressed concerns about the ease of applying the provisions. The provisions provide a clear set of elements for the Classification Board and the review board to consider when making decisions on these matters. It is important that people understand that, to be refused classification, material must advocate the doing of a terrorist act. These are the two terms that are defined in the bill. These are precisely defined terms, taking their meaning from or directly adapting the Criminal Code provisions which were agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments following widespread consultation when introducing antiterrorism laws in 2005. The meaning of these terms should be consistent with their meaning in the Criminal Code. Terrorist acts are a specific and highly dangerous threat to Australian society. The government believes very firmly that material that advocates that people undertake such acts should not be legally available and that the measures in this bill will achieve this objective. I commend the bill very strongly to the House. I hope it will receive a speedy passage and I hope that the opposition will reconsider their proposals to move amendments in the other place.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The original question was that this bill be read a second time. To this the member for Brisbane has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.