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Thursday, 9 February 2017
Page: 572

Mr CREWTHER (Dunkley) (16:44): Mr Speaker, I would also like to join the last two members in welcoming you back in 2017 and thanking you for the wonderful job you are doing.

One of the most regular and persistent subjects of communications that I receive from people both in my electorate and right around Australia is section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. It has been the subject of concern for many people that I have spoken to since prior to my election to this place and up until now. Just last week, I met with a constituent of mine who stressed his concern, and that of his network, that 18C persists in gagging people and limits genuine exchanges of ideas for the sake of not wanting to risk offending people, even if something may not be offensive. As such, I was very pleased when I was able to inform them that the Attorney-General had requested the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to hold a parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental value of our society. It is one that can never be taken for granted, as it can so easily be eroded by a complacent society. By all means, protection for minorities is crucial, as is protection against speech which, for example, encourages violence. In 1919, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr famously stated:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.

But we have other legislation to defend against that. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, as currently drafted, serves only to cripple society and shut down the responsible exchange of ideas should someone who disagrees decide to be offended or insulted. How can we, as a society of diverse origins and values, permit a varying standard of what is and is not offensive, of what is and is not hateful? Subjectivity has no place in the law.

As I stated in my maiden speech:

I am a Liberal because I support freedom and liberty, including freedom of thought, religion, worship, speech and association.

I said that I fear:

… that we are gradually becoming an illiberal society, with people increasingly afraid to express their views or to critique other faiths for fear of public ostracism, being silenced through ad hominem attacks or being caught by such laws.

In the case of the students from Queensland University of Technology we have seen how detrimental to individuals' reputations an accusation of 18C violation can be—to the point where one of the students felt they needed to change their future career path as a result of having had their name dragged through the proverbial mud. There was also the case of cartoonist Bill Leak and how easy it is to submit a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. The very fact that Senator Leyonhjelm's 18C complaint was accepted last year by the Human Rights Commission proves the point that its submission was designed to demonstrate.

Section 18C is a clumsy attempt to protect a society from its own ability to discuss, debate and reason with a fair and open playing field. Section 18D is designed to prevent 18C rendering unlawful 'anything said or done reasonably and in good faith' in the context of art, discourse for academic purposes or in the public interest. Clearly, this part of the legislation is not working as it was originally intended for Australia's best interests and needs to be further expanded. These sections of the Racial Discrimination Act are a hindrance to public conversation, are ineffective and unnecessarily bureaucratic and ought to be altered as soon as possible. The president of the Human Rights Commission herself has recognised that changes should be made. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall so famously stated:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

I look forward to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights' findings when they report on 28 February 2017. I look forward to a society and politics that can continue to uphold free speech and the values that we hold dear and that our forefathers and people and service men and women fought for over many years.