‘Anti-discrimination’ bill may threaten freedom of speech

On November 20, 2012 the federal attorney general, Nicola Roxon, released a draft bill which was said to have the objective of consolidating the various federal legislative measures relating to anti-discrimination. 

The draft is entitled Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012.

In addition to consolidating the anti-discrimination legislation, a worthy exercise, the bill aims to create extensions to “human rights” and to introduce procedural changes in relation to complaints. 

Many of these changes are objectionable. But there are two in particular which must be defeated unless Australia is to enter into a dictatorship where opinions and comments are required to be politically correct and to comply with the philosophy of the ruling government.

My first objection is to the provision that it will be an offence to utter or publish any comment or opinion which “offends, insults or intimidates another”. 

If this bill were to become law, I would be criminally liable for expressing these comments. 

More importantly, the federal member for Bendigo, Mr Steve Gibbons, would already have two strikes against him. 

First, there were his uncomplimentary comments about Kevin Rudd early this year. Second, there were his equally uncomplimentary comments about Tony Abbott later in the year. Obviously, both comments were “offensive and insulting”. 

I read recently that Mr Gibbons denied that his earlier comments were directed to Mr Rudd. 

Therefore, by suggesting that they were, I have offended him. 

Where does the game, to be played out by the legal profession, finish?

My second serious objection is the introduction of a reverse onus of proof. Once the complainant has established a prima facie case (that “he or she said that and it offends me”), the respondent is required to establish that the comments or opinion were not offensive. 

In other words, the respondent must prove a negative. 

This is similar to provisions in the Fair Work Australia Act which have been subject to much criticism. This second objection is compounded by provisions which deny to a respondent the right to recover costs in respect of a vexatious claim.

As with so much of the legislation from this government, the measure will create another layer of bureaucracy and impose red tape on employers.

To what extent do these provisions restrict the writer of an editorial? Likewise, to what extent do these provisions restrict  a teacher or lecturer? 

Maybe Mr Gibbons can explain!

Barry Phillips

Bendigo

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