Four changes that would do more for free speech than watering down 18C

While the Liberal backbenchers work themselves into a tizz over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Red Flag has put together a short list of things the government could do tomorrow if it were serious about protecting free speech.

  1. Repeal secrecy laws that make it illegal for workers in Australia’s offshore detention regime to speak publicly about what they witness. Since 2015, the Australian Border Force Act has imposed a mandatory two-year jail term on any person found guilty of breaching its sweeping secrecy provisions. After a concerted campaign in 2016, an exemption was created for health workers, but social workers, teachers or guards who speak out can expect a stint in jail. 
  2. Remove “gag clauses” that ban publicly funded organisations from criticising the government or advocating law or policy reform. Since 2014, the federal government has used funding agreements with the community legal sector to prohibit advocacy. Similar restrictions are imposed on many other community organisations. The intent is to silence bodies that historically have been vocal in opposing government attacks.
  3. Scrap the federal building code and the Australian Building and Construction Commission that enforces it. Under the code, it is unlawful for construction workers to identify themselves publicly as union members. In particular, clause 13 of the code provides that an employer must ensure that “building association [union] logos, mottos or indicia are not applied to clothing, property or equipment”. Numerous other clauses have the combined effect of denying workers the right to organise freely in unions.
  4. Enshrine the right to protest. Australian governments do not consistently recognise that engaging in public protest is a right. Authorities reserve their powers to restrict and ban public displays of dissent. Currently, NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia have harsh anti-protest laws on the books, which empower police to shut down protests that hinder certain economic interests and require courts to mete out hefty punishments to those involved. Across the country, it is unlawful for workers to protest by picketing their workplaces. Under the Fair Work Act, workers can be hit with large fines if they strike in support of another group of workers or over a political issue.

Of course, none of this will happen, because the government is aiming not to protect free speech but to promote hate speech. Sad.