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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 151

Mr GARRETT (10:40 PM) —The Anti-Terrorism Bill (No. 2) 2005 is law which plainly undermines the legal and constitutional practices of our Federation. If ‘freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose’ we are in danger of really losing precious freedoms. To put it plainly, this government has gone a step too far in respect of this legislation.

I want to refer particularly to the sedition clauses of the bill, although there is plenty to be said about the totality of the legislation. But in one important way sedition stands out. Why? Because it is an offence that historically has attracted a political judgment as opposed to a legal judgment. It is an offence that is universally disliked by lawyers and by those who know a little of history and who value liberty.

I focus on sedition, as the state premiers clearly were not required to. Indeed, it is a Commonwealth crime which relies on an ultimate decision by the federal Attorney-General to prosecute. I focus on sedition because members of the government, including the Attorney-General, do not have the confidence that these clauses as drafted should come before the House. The government’s current position can be summarised thus. The Attorney-General acknowledges public concern about the laws and will review sedition clauses—but not prior to legislating; only once they are law. How extraordinary. By Senator Brandis, the member for Wentworth and others with legal backgrounds, they are described as bad, archaic, poorly drafted laws. Yet the sedition provisions have come into this parliament virtually unchanged.

The only judgment on the contribution of honourable members opposite is that it has been limited, for in this case bad laws are still standing. That being the case, the parliament is entitled to ask: why are they being considered at all? It is because the effect of these laws is to create confusion and fertilise fear and uncertainty, and the Howard government thrives on these conditions.

I remind the House that, were it not for the actions of ACT Chief Minister Stanhope, the parliament and the public would, in the first instance, have been denied the opportunity to see the proposed antiterrorism laws prior to their being tabled in the House. The original intention of the government was to rush this legislation through, truncate debate and doubtless continue to play the ‘soft on terrorism’ card or say, ‘Here’s another terrorism risk,’ to raise the temperature around this issue a little higher.

There has been near universal condemnation of the government by competent legal authorities, academics and judges, to the clear effect that these proposed laws undermine both our legal history and practice and, critically, first principles—namely, that everyone is entitled to be considered innocent unless proven otherwise; that no person should be arbitrarily detained without charge; and, importantly in the context of heightened anxiety about terrorism, that the scope of laws like sedition should not be so expanded as to open up the Pandora’s box of possibilities as to whom such laws should be applied.

In a letter to the Prime Minister released today, the president of the Law Council of Australia writes:

Australia’s legal profession is united ... in opposition to your government’s proposed legislation.

He goes on to say:

The legislation offends our traditional rights and freedoms.

In the case of the sedition clauses, 10 days ago I sought legal opinion on the likely impact the antiterrorism bill would have on the free expression of opinion, especially in relation to creative and artistic expression. Senior Counsel Peter Gray found:

Australians involved in creative or artistic fields seem to me to be particularly vulnerable to the risk of prosecution under the regime to be introduced by the bill.

Concerns about the scope of the sedition clauses have subsequently been widely expressed by other legal experts, so why enact these laws now? If the intention is to contain hateful, inflammatory language intended to create violence amongst racial and religious groups, then clearly-worded laws which deal specifically with that matter should be drafted and considered. Labor have made proposals to that effect. But that has not happened. Instead, we have a mishmash of offences, with strictly limited defences, which have the effect of drawing into their clutches writers, painters, poets, peaceful protesters, journalists and more.

These people, along with their fellow citizens, are the ones most affected by bad laws of this kind. The shining light of their democratic and creative impulse should not be darkened by the possibility, however remote, that they may be committing sedition when in fact they are merely exercising the very rights we need to protect in times such as these. These sedition laws should be withdrawn now.