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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 41

Senator JOHNSTON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (11:32 AM) —I believe that one of the speakers in the second reading debate has not completed her speech. I thought Senator Kirk had not finished. (Quorum formed)

In closing the second reading debate, at the outset I want to express my disappointment that the Labor Party has chosen to pursue their amendment to this bill. It clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the important issue and it shows the depth of inexperience the Labor Party has when it comes to issues of national security—and, may I say, a high degree of naivete. This disappointment does not extend to surprise. I am not surprised that the Labor Party has once again pushed an agenda that is not in the best interests of the nation.

On the one hand, you have a government doing everything it can to improve security and deal with potential terrorism threats in Australia and, on the other hand, you have the Labor Party and opposition in this place supporting measures that would be inadequate to protect the Australian community. They want to water down this important initiative. They are clearly not serious about dealing with terrorism and the genesis of terrorism. I will deal with the opposition’s amendment in more detail in the coming committee stage. Waiting for a terrorist attack to occur, of course, is utterly unacceptable. Prevention, anticipation and doing something to avert the event are the top priority and the new battleground.

The government is concerned about influences within our society that lead people into terrorism. Our laws must deal adequately with material that encourages people to commit terrorist acts, 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. Things could not be simpler and more welcome. Material that has been refused classification cannot be legally sold, exhibited or displayed in Australia. There is significant doubt and uncertainty about whether current classification laws adequately capture material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act. What is clear is that something needs to be, and must be, done with respect to such material.

I thank honourable senators for their contributions to the debate, and I would like to respond to some of the points raised. With respect to Senator Ludwig, the accusation against the Attorney-General of delay in responding to this issue is totally wrong. Of course, what we do in the Commonwealth domain is to consult the states. There is no point in having federal legislation that is in contradiction to state legislation, so we consult the states. We consult the state Attorneys-General at six-monthly meetings, we consult the ministers of police, we consult corrective services ministers—we consult all the necessary state ministers to make sure there is national, harmonious, concise, consistent legislation. The Attorney has been seeking to herd cats in terms of the state ministers. They have a very limited understanding of what national security is really about and, as is typical of most Labor Party ministers in this country, no interest whatsoever in responding to these threats.

Senator Ludwig is fully aware of the facts regarding what has gone on here. Subsequently I will table a chronology of events that the Attorney-General has put before the various state ministers, only to be rebuffed out of ignorance and naivete. The Attorney, in tabling this chronology in the other place, was quite surprised and shocked by accusations similar to what we have heard from Senator Ludwig being raised in the House of Representatives by the member for Brisbane. Senator Ludwig is aware that it is his state and territory Labor colleagues who are responsible for the delay, and he did nothing to bring them to account.

I note that Labor supports this legislation, yet it seeks to take the opportunity to argue that there has been a delay. The delay is at Senator Ludwig’s feet, having no goodwill with his state colleagues, obviously. It seems that Labor has a very relaxed attitude towards the facts in this matter. I table the chronology in order to highlight the significant inconsistencies in the arguments put forward by the honourable senator.

It is indisputable that the Attorney-General has been working tirelessly on this important initiative since the existence of this material first came to light in July 2005. It is the state and territory Labor governments that have frustrated the process continually, refusing to be cooperative or constructive, and hiding behind their bureaucrats while repeatedly opposing any proposal put forward by the Australian government. Of course, Senator Ludwig, representing Rudd Labor, has been the epitome and personification of that dilatory conduct.

I do not intend to take up the Senate’s time by going through the chronology of events once again. It is there for all to see. The document I have tabled speaks for itself, and I think it is important to make the point that, immediately after it was clear that the AFP, the DPP and the Classification Board were unable to deal with this kind of material under the current regime, the Attorney-General did act decisively and urgently to obtain the agreement of the state and territory censorship ministers to take material that advocates terrorist acts off the streets. They said no, many times, and here we are now, late in the electoral cycle, seeking to repair something that responsible state ministers should have switched on to a lot sooner than they did. So the Attorney has been forced to take action. The Attorney should be commended for his leadership on this point.

I now turn to some of the commentary in the second reading debate. Senator Nettle made some outrageous commentary in her speech last night, comparing the current government to the Hitler and Stalin regimes. These sorts of comments always say more about the person uttering them than the person or institution they are trying to criticise. I was disappointed by Senator Nettle’s attitude to these matters. It shows that she and Labor have not been paying attention to what has happened in the world since September 11, 2001. Senator Nettle, in one of her more lucid moments in the debate yesterday, claimed that these measures further erode human rights in Australia in the name of national security. She mentioned that freedom of expression and freedom of speech will be further eroded. The government rejects this. The former Canadian Attorney-General and former human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, who is a strong proponent of the concept of humane security, recently told a Canadian parliamentary committee:

... terrorism constitutes an assault on the security of a democracy and the most fundamental rights of its inhabitants—the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.

In seeking to prevent terrorism, counterterrorism laws are in fact protecting these basic rights and freedoms. Therefore, if counterterrorism legislation is proportionate, its security objectives are not so much in conflict with human rights but supportive of them. The Australian government has put great time and effort into getting the balance correct. We maintain that this legislation goes a long way towards achieving the perfect and right balance.

Freedom of expression is an important part of Australian society and merely holding and asserting strongly opposing views should not attract censorship. This law is designed to strike an appropriate balance, as I have said, between freedom of expression and the need to protect the community, and, as I said, I think it achieves that balance. There is another right which must be protected—the right to be protected from the pernicious influence of material that advocates that the naive and impressionable go out and commit terrorist acts against other human beings. The inclusion of proposed new section 9A(3) in the bill will ensure that the new provisions will operate effectively against unacceptable material but will not infringe or impinge on freedom of speech or mainstream popular culture.

Senator Nettle mentioned article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and said that this provides for freedom of expression which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds through any kind of media. I could see where she was going at the outset of those comments, and I thought: how naive can you get? However, this article also states that this right carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions—and I underline this—as provided by law and are necessary for reasons which explicitly include national security. Of course, the Greens have an absolute anathema towards national security. Refusing classification of material that advocates that people commit terrorist acts is consistent with this obligation.

I will conclude by saying that the Attorney-General has unambiguously stated that this bill would not have proceeded if state and territory governments agreed to amend the classification code and guidelines individually in their states. This point needs to be made clearly. The government has been forced to resort to this bill because the state and territory governments have refused to cooperate, and here we are with the Labor Party attempting to weaken this measure. The Attorney has pursued this issue with state ministers for over a year. This is very disappointing, but also very indicative of the fact that they have no interest, no responsibility and no understanding of what we are seeking to do here. I would like to acknowledge that, at the most recent meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, New South Wales and South Australia indicated their support for the proposal, and so my remarks are tempered with respect to those jurisdictions. However, the amendments to the code and guidelines require unanimous support of all governments, so the initiative, once again, failed.

The bill is not about restricting freedom of speech. It is about ensuring that material advocating terrorist acts is not legally available. The bill takes into account submissions received during widespread consultation conducted by the Attorney-General’s Department on this proposal. It is important to note that there is a provision in the bill that puts beyond doubt that material that is merely part of a public discussion, debate, entertainment or satire will not be captured by the bill. The explanatory memorandum also 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. These are clearly defined terms, taking their meaning from or directly adapting the Criminal Code provisions which were agreed by the Council of Australia Governments when introducing the antiterrorism laws in 2005.

Terrorism acts are a specific and highly dangerous threat to Australian society, which is obvious to all of us. The government firmly believe that material which advocates people undertaking such acts should not be legally available, and the measures contained in this bill will achieve that objective. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.