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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1509

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:31 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the President to a question without notice asked by Senator Allison today relating to the parliamentary computer network and Internet filtering.

This may seem like a small thing, but it seems to me to be a form of censorship which has absolutely no purpose. I object to the fact that someone else is deciding what is and what is not a morally appropriate website for me to observe. We are not clear on the rules here. We do not know what sorts of sites are going to be banned. We know pornographic sites are one of them.

I was looking up information on the web on the debate a couple of weeks ago about clean coal and the split in conservation groups on this issue, and the Herald Sun report on this matter was denied me because it was ‘malicious’. So, apart from the fact that the filter is unlikely to filter out those things which are truly dangerous and offensive to us, I think this is the thin end of the wedge in terms of determining what senators and their staff can and cannot see. As we know, there is an exemption for the library. Why? Because they do research. What do we do on the web? Research. Instead of that, we have this lame excuse by the Appropriations and Staffing Committee that the department has this filter and so should we—what is fair for one is fair for all. Well, it does not seem to me to be self-evident. There need to be cogent reasons why we have this filter.

The President says: ‘Look, it’s all all right. If you find you’ve been blocked on a site and you really need to get to it, ring up 2020.’ I do not know about you, Mr Deputy President, but I am often looking up websites at 11 o’clock at night, and certainly on the weekends, and, if you have tried ringing 2020 at that time, you will know that there is no response.

I do not object to illegal sites being banned. I think it is perfectly appropriate that, if someone is doing something illegal on a website, in the same way as on the road or anywhere else, they should be properly penalised for it. There is the capacity to interrogate the website access actions of senators and their staff. My question to the President was: where is the problem? Show us. Are there people around this chamber who are accessing pornography which is not related to their parliamentary duties? I do not think so. Are there members and senators who are looking up illicit drugs for the purposes of trading in drugs or using drugs themselves? I do not know. Is it a big problem? Let’s find out. Instead of that, we have a filter imposed on our access to websites which affects us all.

Since I have raised this issue a number of senators have come to me and told me stories about the sorts of harmless, morally sound information that they have been searching for on the web and has been filtered out. So I think this is a ridiculous concept. With the health portfolio, I look up many sites to do with sexual and reproductive health. It is pretty obvious that a lot of those will fall foul of this filter. Illegal arms is apparently one of the categories which will also trigger the filter. Will it also mean North Korea and its nuclear weapons? Will it also mean the small arms trade, the illegal transfer of guns to developing countries? These are things I am interested in, and I do not want somebody else telling me: ‘That’s not your job. You’re not to do that.’ I do not mind if there is a filter on things which are not for use in our parliamentary activities. Let’s put the filter on footy tipping; let’s put the filter on booking theatre tickets. That is fine by me. But what we have is a controlling act of censorship which is about morals.

We know that Senator Fielding was the one that raised this with the committee. We know that he, the moral protector of all of us in this place, went to them. I do not need that moral protection. I have been in the parliament for 12 years. We are elected to make laws and decisions for this country that affect the lives of humans in this country, but apparently we are not entitled to make decisions for ourselves about what we can and cannot see on the web. We are being treated like children. We are adults, we are fully human, and it is not up to somebody else to say this is or is not appropriate. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.