Labor’s Mark Dreyfus QC takes stand on #freespeech: Abbott and Brandis honour Voltaire only in the breach


Oh the terrible irony for George Brandis QC in fronting the latest Abbott Government attacks on free speech through its terror legislation. Brandis was one of several moderates in the Howard Government who stood firm behind liberal principles to oppose its draconian anti-terror legislation in 2002.

As editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Webdiary I documented the true Liberal dissenters fightback in great detail; indeed it was their dissent which enabled the Labor Party to risk adding its voice to the debate. And in my book Not happy, John I commissioned journalist Paddy Manning to document multiple attempts by the Howard Government, some successful, to deny free speech from those who critiqued government policy. (No Fibs published this chapter in Howard’s blueprint for Abbott to stifle dissent.)

I’m a strong free speech advocate, and I want No Fibs to be active in this area and to help journalists understand the Howard Government’s shocking history on free speech and how the Abbott Government is furthering its legacy of systematic attacks on free speech it does not agree with.

So I’m thrilled that shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus QC has taken a stand and wish him success in the long hard climb ahead.

No Fibs documented the Brandis free speech hypocrisy after his self-serving, forgetful speech to the Sydney Institute in May 2014, which No Fibs published in Freedom wars: The George Brandis speech, along with his intellectual dismemberment by Emma Alberichi on Lateline in George Brandis, free speech charlatan. My reply to Brandis, featuring the Howard Government’s attempts to stifle free speech under cover of anti-terror laws, with links, is The Liberal Party’s war on freedoms.

No Fibs then republished Webdiary stories and relevant chapters from my books Not Happy John and Still Not Happy John on the Howard Government’s appalling free speech record: Brandis: Enemy of free speech, friend of false speech on children overboard, The skull beneath the skin, The Forgotten People, A day in the life of our House under siege, Nazi Greens an enemy of democracy, Government decrees and Costello’s Free speech record,

So here is the Mark Dreyfus speech. I wish him luck persuading his colleagues to stand up for free speech against Abbott’s attempt to further Howard’s anti-free speech ambitions. I have inserted links.

SPEECH BY MARK DREYFUS QC TO SYDNEY FREE SPEECH SYMPOSIUM, 7 AUGUST 2014I thank the Australian Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson for inviting me to speak at this event. Free speech is a fundamental human right, and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss it this afternoon under the auspices of this Human Rights Commission symposium.

Our country has a long tradition of engagement with the principles of human rights developed by the international community in the aftermath of the Second World War. Doc Evatt, a great Australian jurist and stalwart of the Labor Party, presided over the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.!

The preamble to the Universal Declaration expressed the General Assembly’s recognition of ‘the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. In the intervening years, the international community has settled a range of human rights treaties which give binding force to this basic principle, and to the rights enumerated in the Declaration. Australia has generally played a constructive role in this work. But not always.

Unlike many comparable jurisdictions, Australia lacks of a full charter of rights. We have however implemented a number of our treaty commitments in legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act.

The Human Rights Commission has a special responsibility, as our national human rights institution, for the promotion and protection of human rights in this country. It is empowered to administer those human rights statutes that Australia has implemented. Independent of government, it works to make sure that Australia honours the human rights commitments we have made. The Commission does immensely valuable work, and I am very happy to speak here today about an important human rights issue.!

I start by giving this context because we must be very clear what we mean when we talk of the human right to free speech. Freedom of speech has been an issue I have dealt with not just in my public life as a parliamentarian, but also in my practice as a lawyer before entering politics. In my practice at the Bar I specialised in, among other areas, the law of defamation. In that area of the common law, which I assure you is far more restrictive of speech than anything in a human rights statute such as the Racial Discrimination Act, the courts squarely grapple with the boundaries of lawful speech.

And, as is the case with so many areas of the law that require the balancing of competing societal interests, the law of defamation continues to change. And I am happy to say that when it comes to human rights, our laws are generally changing for the better. From my perspective, that means that our laws are becoming better at protecting human rights, including the right to free speech.

A good example is the establishment by the High Court of Australia’s implied constitutional freedom of political communication in Theophanous v Herald & Weekly Times, Lange v ABC and Levy v State of Victoria.

Since leaving the Bar and entering parliament I have maintained my longstanding commitment to improved legal protection of human rights in this country, and that certainly includes the protection of free speech.

Of course, everyone declares that they are committed to freedom of speech.

George Orwell wrote about the abuse of political terminology in his excellent 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. He said that words like ‘freedom’ are capable of several different and irreconcilable meanings. Orwell wrote that this kind of word can be used dishonestly. What a politician really means by ‘free speech’ can be very different from what their audience takes it to mean. It is very easy to declare one’s commitment to freedom of speech. But the critical question is – ‘What does that commitment mean in practice?’

For many of my political opponents, it seems that ‘free speech’ has a very selective meaning indeed. Though they would never dare admit it, ‘free speech’ for some means that reactionary shock-jocks are free to indulge in rants that ride roughshod over the standards of truth and basic decency that our community expects and deserves. For some, it means that no racist hate speech is too vile to be constrained by the law. For some, it means the untrammelled freedom for large corporations to dominate public debate with campaigns designed to serve no interests other than their own.

These same loud devotees of ‘free speech’ are very quiet indeed when the freedom of community groups and activists to participate in important debates is threatened, or the freedom of community legal services to advocate for law reform is removed. They are nowhere to be found when overzealous or clumsy lawmaking threatens the ability of real journalists to do their vital work. They have a very narrow understanding of what free speech means.

By contrast, I will be very clear about what I mean when I talk about free speech. The freedom of speech I seek to advance is a much more important value than that advanced by the Abbott Government. It is rooted in the principles of human rights, properly understood: the principles that this Commission works to advance in our society.

I firmly reject the false argument put by some that practically any regulation or restriction on what we say infringes our right to free speech. I reject the simplistic notion that our only legitimate recourse against harmful or hateful speech is to be found in an imagined ‘marketplace of ideas’.

This reductionist understanding of what free speech entails is mistaken on several counts.

First, what I will call the ‘absolutist’ position on free speech ignores the fact that government restraint is not the only threat to freedom of speech. As the Race Discrimination Commissioner noted in his excellent Alice Tay Lecture in Human Rights and Law at the ANU in March this year, freedom is not merely the absence of external restraint. We rightly speak of ‘freedom to’ as well as ‘freedom from’.

Regulation can secure the freedom to speak and to engage meaningfully in civic life. Our most important and long-standing democratic institutions reflect this insight. They always have. Courts, for example, lay down strict rules and procedures about how parties are to argue their case to ensure that proceedings are fair.

The free press, which fulfils a critical role in our democracy, must be careful in its reporting or risk breaching our defamation laws. Even more importantly, the journalists who work in our media are bound by a rigorous set of professional ethics, though the extent to which they adhere to these ethics, and what can be done if they do not, are complex issues worthy of a speech in themselves.

Parliaments, ostensibly the ultimate forum for free political debate in our society, impose very prescriptive standing orders. While the laws of privilege free me from the constraints of defamation law inside the Parliament, I am constrained in other ways from what I can say. For example, even here, outside the Parliament, I am forbidden as a parliamentarian to reflect on the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The standing orders try to ensure that parliamentary debate is conducted in an orderly, dignified and appropriate manner, though watching question time you might have your own opinion on how successful this framework is.

In almost any forum where our society debates important issues we impose rules governing speech.

My second criticism of the absolutist position on free speech is that it ignores the relationship between free speech and other human rights. Very few human rights, other than the rights to be free of criminal abuses such as torture and slavery, are unqualified.

Implementing an authentic human rights agenda requires careful balancing of competing rights against one another. The human rights system both domestically and internationally is intended to clearly direct our attention to this important and delicate task. The statute establishing the Australian Human Rights Commission expressly says that it is the duty of the Commission to perform its work with regard to the indivisibility of the whole body of human rights.

That free speech is limited by reference to other human rights is apparent on the face of the international agreements we have agreed to. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’) states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression. That article goes on to stipulate, however, that the exercise of this right ‘carries with it special duties and responsibilities’. The right to freedom of expression may be curtailed in order to protect the rights of others.

It was the mistaken belief that an absolute freedom of speech trumps other important rights which drove the Abbott Government’s misguided attempt to repeal s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Of course, this divisive attack on our protections against hate speech was finally dropped on Tuesday by the Prime Minister, who termed it an unnecessary ‘complication’ for the Government.

The Prime Minister seems to have developed a newfound talent for understatement. I understand that the Prime Minister was trying to ease the embarrassment to Senator Brandis, who has so clearly lost the confidence of his Cabinet colleagues, not to say the Liberal backbench and a very large part of the Australian community.

However, the Government’s attack on section 18C was much more than a ‘complication’. That the Prime Minister described his abandonment of Senator Brandis’s signature policy in terms of a simple political calculation tells you a lot about this Government’s continued commitment to a distorted view of what freedom of speech means.

Most notably, what Mr Abbott failed to do this week was to admit to the Australian people that he and his Attorney-General had got it wrong on section 18C. And so the victory we had this week in the Government’s back-down was marred by the knowledge that the eloquent arguments expressed in the thousands of submissions opposing the gutting of our race hate protections did not convince the government to abandon its reckless course.

What convinced the government to back down was that the political costs of continuing on its hugely unpopular and ideologically blinkered course were simply too great.

So while we have had a victory – and I congratulate again all those who fought the government on this issue – the truth is that government’s ideological blinkers are still firmly in place. They still don’t get it. They still have an undergraduate understanding of political philosophy and of human rights. The Abbott Government still doesn’t understand, as any human rights lawyer could explain, that the human right to free speech has always been subject to the human right to be free from racial discrimination.

Senator Brandis’s defining policy priority as Attorney-General has failed because he did not care to understand the breadth and nuance required of an authentic human rights agenda. Senator Brandis, a sworn devotee of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ his government appears determined to shut down, should recognise when he has lost an argument. His colleagues certainly have.

I will not say any more about the Racial Discrimination Act now. My topic today is free speech. The particular focus on s 18C by Senator Brandis, and the spirited defence that this attack engendered, has distracted from a number of other threats posed to free speech in our society.

I am sad to say that many of those threats emanate from the current Government: a government whose heated rhetoric on free speech is belied by its actions.

I will return for a moment to Orwell’s reflection on politics and language. When Abbott Government ministers talks about ‘free speech’, they aren’t just ignorant, but disingenuous. I don’t for a second believe that those who trumpet their commitment to unfettered free speech in the debate surrounding the Racial Discrimination Act in actuality support an absolute approach to freedom of speech.

If they hewed closely to their professed principles, the libertarians amongst the Abbott Government would be demanding a radical revision or even abolition of defamation law and the abolition of offensive language offences. They would defend the fundamental right to make misleading statements in trade and commerce.

No, though the Liberal Government and its supporters talk in sweeping terms about ‘free speech’, they have in mind a much more selective application of that right.

The Attorney-General likes to invoke Voltaire’s (perhaps apocryphal) declaration that he would defend to the death the right to say things with which he completely disagrees. This is heady stuff in the Australian political arena, which is usually more given to pragmatism than philosophy. I am sad to say that I can see no evidence of the sort of political bravery that would have impressed the great French thinker.

Au contraire. Voltaire’s principle is honoured only in the breach. Senator Brandis and his colleagues are more than happy to attack free speech, and when they do, it is invariably the type of speech and the type of speaker with whom they disagree.

I will give you a couple of examples.

Though this Government says it has a ‘profound’ commitment to free speech, it has deliberately sidelined expert NGOs from policy discussion. Senator Brandis has changed the terms on which the Commonwealth funds community legal centres (‘CLCs’) right around the country to prevent them from speaking out on ways in which the law might be usefully reformed, or even from responding to Government inquiries and consultations. He has amended the sector’s funding agreements to exclude Commonwealth funding for ‘law reform and advocacy’.

Chillingly, the Government has also removed clause 5 of the agreements, inserted by the last Labor government. That clause affirmed the commitment of our government that conditions attached to Commonwealth funding to CLCs would not ‘stifle legitimate debate or prevent organisations engaging in advocacy activities.

The Government has cancelled all Commonwealth funding for Environment Defender’s Offices (EDOs). EDOs are small, highly dedicated organisations which work to protect the environment through law. EDOs assist the community at a grassroots level with legal advice and representation in public interest environmental matters. They work towards the improvement of our environmental laws and regulations.

We know from documents released under freedom of information that Senator Brandis’s decision to completely defund the EDOs came just weeks after the NSW Minerals Council wrote to him to complain about EDO advocacy. (Margo: Same story is in NSW.)  In Senate Estimates, Senator Brandis admitted that there had been no analysis of EDO funding arrangements done before the Government terminated all funding (MARGO: see extract of evidence below).

Indeed, Senator Brandis’s decision flies in the face of the advice being provided to his Government, if he would care to listen. The Productivity Commission has strongly endorsed the value of CLC advocacy work in its Draft Report on Access to Justice Arrangements. We might conclude that the Government cut funding to these community organisations simply because they don’t like what those organisations sometimes say and what they sometimes advocate for, regardless of the benefits they consistently provide to our community and our environment.

This is not the only front on which this Government is fighting those who wish to participate in public debate. The Federal Council of the Liberal Party recently unanimously supported a motion by Federal MP Andrew Nikolic calling for environmental groups to be stripped of their tax- deductible status.

Even more chillingly, members of the Abbott Government have now indicated that they plan to use competition law to silence environmental activists. The Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture Richard Colbeck has told the press that there is an ‘appetite’ within the Government to remove the current exemption to the prohibition on secondary boycotts provided for environmental activism.

This Government, which holds itself out as a champion of free markets and free speech, wants to prohibit Australian citizens from speaking out in the marketplace in defence of environmental causes they disapprove of.

The Government’s blind spot on free speech it doesn’t approve of isn’t limited to the NGO sector or to environmental activism. Worryingly, it extends to the media. Though the Government is fond of reactionary opinion columnists, it does not appear to have much interest in defending real, independent journalism.

In Opposition, Senator Brandis promised that he would be a champion of the free press. In May 2013 he said on the ABC’s Lateline: ‘there is no greater friend of journalist shield laws than me’. (Margo: See Peter Clarke analysis of the interview.)

In Government, Labor began working with State and Territory Attorneys-General to create uniform national system of journalist shield laws. We were serious about making sure that journalists were able to do their vital work and uphold their ethics without risking contempt charges and even gaol time.

Senator Brandis, stalwart of freedom that he is, has abandoned this work. This Attorney-General, who claims to be a committed classic liberal, has taken shield laws off the agenda at COAG. Instead, he is working with his colleagues in Liberal state governments towards the implementation of Campbell Newman-style repressive law and order policies nationwide.

But Senator Brandis, who describes himself as ‘a John Stuart Mill man’, doesn’t just fail to protect the free press. He actively attacks it.

The national security legislation Senator Brandis has recently introduced into the Senate contains a new provision, s 35P, which makes it an offence punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment for anyone to disclose information about certain undercover operations declared by ASIO to be ‘special intelligence operations’. As has been pointed out, this could apply to journalists, even when they did not know that information relates to such an operation. There are no exemptions.

I have no desire to politicise national security issues. I have said publicly numerous times, and privately to the Government, that I will always work constructively to help the Government on any legislation necessary to keep our nation safe. Senator Brandis’s national security legislation has been referred to the bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for just this purpose.

It is clear to me however that the proposed s 35P as currently drafted is not necessary. It is an unprecedented overreach of government power which poses a real threat to the freedom of the press. Senator Brandis has spent more than two years now fulminating over a civil prohibition on race hatred, and now his own legislation would criminalise an activity of journalists.

The Government must amend the legislation to remove this threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Labor will oppose it in its current form. We will not tolerate legislation which exposes journalists to criminal sanction for doing their important work. Work that is vital to upholding the public’s right to know.

I suggest to you that these attacks on free speech shows what a façade this Government’s professed commitment to free speech is.

The protection of human rights should not be a matter for partisan contest. Despite what Senator Brandis sometimes suggests, human rights are not and never can be the province of any one party. Governments of both political complexions have made meaningful contributions to human rights protection in this country.

The Abbott Government, however, has taken us backwards. Hopefully, this government will have learned a serious lesson from its failure this week in relation to section 18C. And if this government has any integrity about its stated principles, it will cease its attacks on free speech in this country.

In particular, the Abbott Government must renounce its hostility to environmental groups and wider civil society, and reinstate government support for the involvement of CLCs in advocacy and law reform processes. Senator Brandis must get to work on the journalist shield laws he promised, and encourage his Cabinet colleagues to cease their attacks on the independence and capacity of the ABC to report what is happening in our nation.

And the Government must also abandon repressive changes to our competition law that would shut down the public’s right to protest through organised actions against corporations.

Freedom of speech must not be reduced to a simplistic slogan, employed as a war cry in the pursuit of base political objectives. Freedom of speech must be respected as a fundamental right in our society, a nuanced and deeply important value that we must fight to uphold, and to strengthen. Thank you.


Extract from Senate Estimates hearing 28 MAY, 2014, pp 72-74

Senator SINGH: (Environmental Defenders Offices) are receiving no federal funding anymore; is that correct? After 30 June, the federal government will not fund environmental defenders offices anymore?

Mr Manning: I would not say ‘will not fund’. Under the current proposal, that is correct. I cannot talk about the future.

Mr Fredricks: Just to be clear: that was the point in time at which those contracts with the environmental defenders offices were due to expire in any event, so the proper articulation of that measure is a nonrenewal of contracts that were expiring on 30 June 2014.

Mr Manning: That is correct in relation to their baseline funding, and they also received, like the other 57 I just mentioned, some additional top-up which was cancelled as at 31 December last year.

Senator SINGH: Given that the Productivity Commission’s draft report Access to justice arrangements indicates that the ‘commission considers that advocacy should be a core activity of LACs (legal aid centres) and CLC (community legal centres), particularly peak bodies and the larger CLCs’ and that advocacy can be an efficient use of limited resources, on what cost- benefit analysis was the decision to cut services, or the distribution of those cuts, made?

Mr Manning: The final decision was one that was taken by the government, so I do not think I am in a position to go into the—

Senator SINGH: But you have chosen 57. You must have gone through some process.

Mr Wilkins: No, the policy was to cut advocacy and that they should concentrate on casework. That is a very simple policy position. I am not sure what cost-benefit analysis you mean. The Productivity Commission is not God; it is contestable.

Senator SINGH: Well, it has been completely ignored in this situation.

Mr Wilkins: Well, it is only a draft—(a) it is a draft report and (b) it is—

Senator SINGH: How did you come up with the 57 that are going to be cut in the outlying years?

Senator Brandis: If I could offer the missing subparagraph (b): as well, the decision was made before the draft report to which you have referred, so it was not ignored. The Productivity Commission deals with productivity, not about policy choices in all senses. A policy decision was made to concentrate resources where they were needed most, and that was made before the draft report was received. And it would not have been affected by the draft report, because that reflects the values of the government that the neediest people should be looked after first.

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  1. John Fraser says


    I wish Abbott would stop maligning innocent animals.

    Aligning Abetz with sheep.

    Having brandis stand there looking like a donkey.

    Excellent speech from Mark Dreyfus.

    My respect for him is …… if possible … even more enhanced.

    J'accuse now moves onto the Abbott government.