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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1903

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (15:44): Mr Deputy President, it may have escaped the attention of honourable senators that last Friday marked the 75th anniversary of the execution of Nikolai Bukharin, one of the fathers of the Bolshevik revolution. He fell foul of Joseph Stalin and was one of the most celebrated victims of the Moscow show trials. I am aware of this fact because Mr Paul Scarr, a very good friend of mine and a very estimable man, pointed this fact out in a letter to the Australian FinancialReview last Friday and drew attention to the irony that the 75th anniversary of the execution of Bukharin should have coincided with the week in which for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth an Australian government sought to muzzle the media. Nikolai Bukharin at the height of his revolutionary powers after the Bolshevik revolution said about the freedom of the press:

We asked for freedom of the press, thought and civil liberties in the past because we were in the opposition and needed these liberties to conquer. Now that we have conquered, there is no longer any need for such civil liberties.

So said Nikolai Bukharin and he died the death of all tyrants.

I am not saying pace the Daily Telegraph last Wednesday that Senator Stephen Conroy is a tyrant. Nevertheless one finds in the attempts by the Gillard government to regulate the media with this unprecedented step the same mindset, the mindset that says, 'We are the rulers and therefore we shall decide what may be said in the course of public discussion.'

This distaste for free and robust public discussion has been one of the insistent themes of the Rudd and Gillard governments, but particularly it has been a characteristic of Senator Stephen Conroy. There could not be a worse person to be the minister for communications in any Australian government because Senator Stephen Conroy has no commitment whatsoever to freedom of communication. This is the man who sought to censor the internet. This is the man who sat in a government which sought—and still seeks, by the way—to make it against the law for people to express political opinions which other people might be offended by. This is the man who, last week, brought forward a package of media legislation which for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia imposes public limitations and public sanctions on the content of newspapers. That has never been done before in the history of the Commonwealth, although it has been done once before in Australian history in colonial times, as Senator Birmingham pointed out. It is the first time since 1827, when Governor Darling sought to license the newspapers in the colony of New South Wales, that any tin-pot dictator in this nation or in Australia has sought to say that the government is allowed to say or to at least attempt to influence what newspapers can write and publish.

Mr Deputy President, do not just take it from me. I have in my hands a copy of a letter written to Senator Conroy this morning by Mr Kim Williams, the CEO of News Limited.

Senator Mark Bishop interjecting

Senator BRANDIS: You interject, Senator Bishop, mockingly about Mr Kim Williams because we know that you do not like News Limited. But, Senator, through you, Mr Deputy President, tell me why a respectable private citizen who is the CEO of a major news organisation should be the subject of insult and abuse in the Australian Senate merely because he is trying to stand up for freedom of speech. Mr Williams in his communication to Senator Conroy points out the many respects in which the bill about to be introduced into the parliament stifles freedom of speech.

First of all, the regulator, the so-called—this is Orwellian—public interest monitor is not an independent officer. He is appointed by the government of the day and answerable only to the minister. There are no limitations within the legislation on what the public interest monitor might do or what matters he is required to take into account and his decisions are not reviewable. So if a complaint is made to this individual, the disposition of the complaint is not subject to the ordinary processes of administrative review by the courts. Those are, in a sense, lawyers' objections. They are serious matters but they do not go to the heart of the problem.

The heart of the problem is the mindset of a government which says: 'We need a bureaucrat, we need an official, we need a commissar to tell the public what is in the public interest to know. One man or woman of the 23 million people in Australia should have the role cast upon their shoulders by act of parliament to say, "You are the arbiter of the public interest; you will decide what the public can see or hear or read and you will decide what they are not allowed to see or hear or read."' These are small steps but they are steps in a very dangerous direction because, if ever there was a slippery slope, it is when governments decide that they should have some say in the content of what newspapers print.

We are a robust democracy, always have been. The debates in this parliament are robust, as they should be. The debates in the newspapers are robust, as they should be. Politicians of all stripes—conservative, socialist, Labor, Liberal, Green—whoever they are, if they want to participate in the democratic process they ought to accept that people are free to criticise them. They ought to accept that if people criticise them in ways that they think are unfair, then so what? Because the person who is making the criticism no doubt thinks that his criticism is fair and the truth will out from the greatest number of voices participating in the discussion with the greatest freedom from constraint. And if ever there is a body which ought not to be seeking to influence or channel or shape or limit what can be said in political discussion, it is the government itself.

As long ago as 1859, John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century liberal philosopher, wrote this in On Liberty:

The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the "liberty of the press" as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive … to prescribe opinions to [the people], and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear.

That is what John Stuart Mill wrote more than 150 years ago. And yet, astonishingly, what one of the leading intellects of the age in Britain in the middle of the 19th century thought was an argument so arcane that it was consigned to mediaeval times so that it was no longer even necessary to defend the freedom of the press is necessary in Australia in the second decade of the 21st century. So far has this government regressed, so far has it embraced the authoritarian conceit that, because it is the government, it somehow has a wisdom superior to the public so that it has a role in shaping what may be said or published or printed or read. It is a slippery slope, but there is only one side that stands for freedom.