Dean Smith

ARchive

A Personal View

Standing up for Liberal values delivers free speech victory

March 22, 2017

The events in London have reminded us how important it is to defend our values of free speech and democracy.

That’s why I am proud of the Coalition Government’s decision this week to strengthen free speech laws and improve the complaint-handling processes of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Contrary to the fear campaign from Labor, these important reforms will strengthen Australia’s anti-vilification laws.

The decision is a win for free speech, common sense and for the many Liberals who have argued the case for reform over the last two years. It was also pleasing to read in today's The Australian that former Prime Minister John Howard has thrown his support behind the government's planned amendments, click here to read Mr Howard's comments. 

These reforms follow the release of the Report into Freedom of Speech in Australia by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on 28 February. I am delighted the idea for a parliamentary inquiry, an idea I had actively promoted, was embraced by the Prime Minister in December last year.

Significantly, the legislation will remove the words “offend, insult, humiliate” from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and insert the word “harass”. In addition, it will introduce a “reasonable member of the Australian community” test as the objective standard by which contravention of section 18C should be judged.

I strongly believe these reforms strike the right balance by strengthening the protections against hate speech based on race, whilst enhancing freedom of speech. Importantly, they ensure that unmeritorious complaints are terminated and respondents are not put to great personal and financial cost.

The campaign for reform of our free speech laws has spanned almost the entire period of my parliamentary career to date. Below is a brief history of the campaign which began in 2014.

I extend my personal thanks to the many Liberals and others who have constantly encouraged my work on this important issue.

When the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights released it's report last month, I congratulated the committee on providing a strong basis of evidence, on which the government could use to justify the importance of reforming section 18C and strengthening Australia's free speech laws. 

The approach was both calm and prudent, and delivered a very sensible set of recommendations.

The report in The West Australian newspaper on 9 November 2016 announcing the government's decision to initiate a parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech in Australia was welcomed by many supporters of reform.

 

The Australian newspaper has been a consistent champion in highlighting the deficiencies in the Australian Human Rights Commission complaints handling process and stood firm in supporting both the QUT students and the late Bill Leak, when they found themselves unfairly captured by section 18C.

One of the first opinion pieces I had published arguing the case form reform of Section 18C was in The Australian newspaper, following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015.

I was reminded yesterday by a colleague of my decision to join with Senators Leyonhjelm, Day and Bernadi, in being the first Liberal Senator to support a Private Senators Bill to remove the words "insult" and "offend" from the Racial Discrimination Act 1975

Again, I extend my thanks to all Liberals who journeyed with me on this important strengthening of free speech laws in Australia.