IPA Today

Freedom of Speech and Political Communication in Australia

Written by
30 January 2018

Freedom of speech is fundamental to a free society. Political communication is obviously an important mode of speech and accordingly, the laws and regulations that seek to restrict it are inherently concerning.

Supporting candidates and political parties that share one’s values – financially or by any other means – is a form of political expression. It should be governed with a view to maximising free speech. The right to privacy is also important to enable the full exercise of freedom of political communication, protecting supporters of candidates, political parties and advocacy groups from fear of retaliation and harassment.

Concerns about the ‘undue influence’ of campaign funding – including that from ‘foreign sources’ – are misguided. Further, experience suggests that ‘crackdowns’ on political funding and disclosure tend to fail in solving perceived problems and often incur unintended consequences.

The electoral reform bill recently introduced into Parliament by the Turnbull Government is a cause for significant concern. One particularly worrying aspect is its extension of funding and disclosure regulations to entities with no actual relationship with the political process beyond mere speech.

As a matter of principle, the bill should be opposed. However, even as a matter of practicality, the expanded reach of funding and disclosure laws would impose unreasonable regulatory burdens on a number of community groups with minimal involvement with the political process.

Submitted to the Inquiry into the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017.

Freedom of speech is paramount in a free society. Political communication is obviously an important mode of speech, and attempts by government to restrict it are inherently concerning.

The potential reach of this bill is extremely concerning. It would effectively give the AEC authority over a whole range of community organisations with no relationship to the political process other than commenting on public policy issues.

This would impose a pointless and unnecessary red tape burden on charities, community groups, service clubs, religious organisations and other civic groups.

The bill as currently drafted goes way beyond its apparent aims, and should be redrafted.

The limited exemptions in the bill – particularly for media organisations – will just favour voices in the public debate that are more prominent, entrenched and well-funded. Why should the bill apply to an article published on the website of a community group, but not to an article published on the website of The Spectator or Buzzfeed? Why should the bill apply to opinions expressed by the head of an industry association, but not to opinions expressed by a journalist at Sky or the ABC? There is no reason for this double standard.

The difference between the IPA and Getup is that we don’t selectively pick and choose when to believe in freedom of speech, we believe that neither Finkelstein, or Gillian Triggs, or the AEC Commissioner should determine what you can and can’t say.

Click here to download the report.


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Gideon Rozner

Gideon Rozner is the Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs

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