Rights and Freedoms

Sketchy Laws To Silence Us

Written by
8 May 2021
Originally appeared in The Herald Sun

Waving the Australian flag could soon land you in jail in Victoria because members of the Liberal, National and Labor parties appear to believe Victorians are racist.

This is just one of the many devastating consequences to Australian freedoms if an unprecedented proposal to overhaul Victoria’s anti-vilification laws are adopted.

The recently released Inquiry into Anti-vilification Protections from the Legislative Assembly Legal and Social Issues Committee includes 36 recommendations, some of which would constitute the most significant restrictions on freedom of speech ever considered. Not just in Victoria. Or Australia. But in the Western world.  

Just like section 18C at the federal level, the proposed anti-vilification laws are vaguely worded and contain no objective standard for unlawful speech.

It is currently unlawful in Victoria to ‘incite’ hatred on the basis of a person’s race or religion.

But now it is proposed that any speech a person merely considers ‘hateful’ be outlawed. And not just on the basis of their race or religion, but also in relation to their gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, sex characteristics, intersex status, disability, and HIV/AIDS status.

The criminal offence of serious vilification would remain an incitement-based offence, but would be watered down so that the offender does not need to be aware of or intend to commit a crime.

Getting rid of hate speech is a noble cause. But the inquiry is based on the lie Victorians are irredeemably racist and misogynist bigots.

It is asserted that ‘incidence of vilification and hate conduct continues to rise.’

Yet evidence included in the report shows that complaints of racial and religious vilification are rare.

Rather than reach the obvious conclusion perhaps this means Victoria is a tolerant and harmonious state, the committee has instead determined Victorians are fundamentally racist but the racism is just underreported.

This is deceitful and dishonest. Such a statement cannot be falsified. The committee is using the lack of evidence as evidence of a problem.

Not only would the recommendations of the inquiry not end hate speech, they are likely to sanction more of it. This is because the only attribute that would not be protected from hate speech is one’s political beliefs.

In practice, this means it would be legal to say that Australia is “racist to its very foundations,” as Greens senator Lidia Thorpe said in parliament in February.

But to disagree with Senator Thorpe and say that it is not, and “Australia day should be celebrated on 26 January” could be illegal because someone, such as Thorpe, could consider such a statement to be ‘hate speech’.

In other words, members of the committee would license hate against mainstream Victorians who love their country.

Ominously, the proposal also would allow the government to empower “trusted community organisations” to collect and handle vilification complaints. This means groups like Extinction Rebellion or GetUp! could be funded by the government and appointed to surveil and harass anyone they take issue with.

Regardless of whether a complaint results in a conviction, the threat of even a meritless complaint will silence many. Society will suffer culturally and intellectually as many will fear their views could be considered illegal.

Craven politicians are even weaponising serious mental health issues to avoid scrutiny, debate, and to characterise anyone who disagrees as immoral and heartless.

The committee claims, for example, that those who experience racist comments are likely to incur negative mental health outcomes.

This may well be true. But if the concern is for mental health, then surely vilifying someone because of their political beliefs or opinions should be as concerning.

It has been suggested that the open season on those who opposed the COVID-19 lockdowns, such as Ballarat woman Zoe Buehler, and vilification of conservatives is far more prevalent in Victoria than any other form of vilification.

Black Lives Matter protestors, who are inflaming racial division in our society, will not be targets of these laws. It is popular figures and commentators such as Margaret Court, Andrew Bolt and Sam Newman who activists will try to shut down.

Disturbingly, the report is bipartisan. James Newbury, the Liberal Member for Brighton, is the deputy chair of the committee.

Whether Mr Newbury recognises the implication of the proposal cannot yet be said, because no dissenting report was prepared, and the Coalition has been silent on all but one recommendation since the report was released. That recommendation relates to the banning of Nazi paraphernalia.

This should hardly need to be stated, but Australia is the least racist country in the world, perhaps in history.

And its people are overwhelmingly united in their shared values of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democracy, reward for effort and egalitarianism.

Despite what the political elites would like them to believe, there is more that unites us than divides us.

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Morgan Begg

Morgan Begg is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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