Has Managing Free Speech Become a Bipartisan Value in Australia?

CommentaryPrime Minister Scott Morrison is right to say that Australians are “sick of walking on eggshells” over what the media has pre-emptively declared controversial topics. Morrison’s comments followed a malicious campaign to scour the social media history of Katherine Deves for evidence of what the overly sensitive regard as offensive comments. Deves was the leader of the group “Save Women’s Sport,” which seeks to preserve biology-based standards for entry into female sports. She has described the controversial practice of gender surgery on adolescents as rendering them “surgically mutilated and sterilised.” But despite the prime minister’s principled declaration that Deves should not be “cancelled” for her views, it was his own communications minister, Paul Fletcher, who recently promised to flood the internet with eggshells. In a quiet announcement in March, Fletcher revealed the government will be drafting new laws to “address disinformation” on the internet. Under Fletcher’s plan, the federal government would give the broadcaster regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), sweeping powers to enforce standards on content online that it deems “disinformation” or “misinformation.” These powers could be weaponised to shut down the very debates that Deves is now being maligned for. Deves’ comments have not been deleted by government censors until now because Australia has not enforced arbitrary rules about online misinformation, which is widely acknowledged to be a novel and ambiguous concept. Liberal candidate for Warringah Katherine Deves waits for Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a Liberal Party rally on Day 21 of the 2022 federal election campaign, at Accor Stadium in Sydney, Australia, on May 1, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) But under Fletcher’s proposal, a government agency would be given the power to define the “official” truth and what counts as acceptable opinions in public—and even private—debates. Canberra’s thought police, represented by ACMA, would then enforce its standards against digital platforms that sign up to the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook have already signed up to the Code, but it is currently voluntary and self-regulated. ACMA now wants the power to not only enforce the code but the power to devise its own standards and encourage platforms to be more “ambitious” in censoring content on their sites. Where it really gets dangerous is in the idea of reducing “harm.” This is the key commitment of the Code and is the main objective of what ACMA would be enforcing. But harm is not defined how a regular person would understand it. “Harm” is defined in the code with reference to things that would cause harm to ‘democratic’ processes such as “voting misinformation,” which would allow ACMA to make decisions about the kinds of content that could mislead people at an election. The scope that this gives ACMA to manage and manipulate public debate is obviously and grossly inconsistent with Australia’s tradition of free political communication during election periods. The definition of harm also includes harms to “public goods” such as the “protection of citizens’ health, protection of marginalised or vulnerable groups, public safety and security or the environment.” This could just about encompass any of the ever-changing values and priorities of the political class. Oppose net-zero to address climate change? That is harmful to the environment. Oppose lockdowns? That’s harmful to public health. Or, if like Katherine Deves you believe the participation of biological males in women’s sports is unfair or unsafe, that would be harmful to a marginalised group. A truck advertisement that targets Independent MP Zali Steggall’s view on transgender issues is seen in the Warringah electorate in Sydney, Australia on April 25, 2022. (Advance Australia/Facebook) In effect, this would be a backdoor expansion of government hate speech laws online. Whereas the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to offend or insult a person because of their race or colour or nationality or ethnic origin, the disinformation laws would ban this kind of speech about any kind of victim group, as determined by the government. What is noteworthy about this is what it reveals about the modern Liberal party. It was only in 2013 that the Liberal Party, in opposition to the Gillard Labor government, blocked in the senate the media reform laws put forward by Stephen Conroy. The media reform laws, based on the recommendations of the Finkelstein Inquiry, were to establish a new government regulator of the media and give it the power to punish media outlets that failed to meet standards of “accuracy” and “fairness.” Under Conroy’s media laws, the government effectively would have assumed the power to tell media outlets what they could say according to their definition of what was fair or accurate. N

Has Managing Free Speech Become a Bipartisan Value in Australia?

Commentary

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is right to say that Australians are “sick of walking on eggshells” over what the media has pre-emptively declared controversial topics.

Morrison’s comments followed a malicious campaign to scour the social media history of Katherine Deves for evidence of what the overly sensitive regard as offensive comments.

Deves was the leader of the group “Save Women’s Sport,” which seeks to preserve biology-based standards for entry into female sports. She has described the controversial practice of gender surgery on adolescents as rendering them “surgically mutilated and sterilised.”

But despite the prime minister’s principled declaration that Deves should not be “cancelled” for her views, it was his own communications minister, Paul Fletcher, who recently promised to flood the internet with eggshells.

In a quiet announcement in March, Fletcher revealed the government will be drafting new laws to “address disinformation” on the internet. Under Fletcher’s plan, the federal government would give the broadcaster regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), sweeping powers to enforce standards on content online that it deems “disinformation” or “misinformation.”

These powers could be weaponised to shut down the very debates that Deves is now being maligned for.

Deves’ comments have not been deleted by government censors until now because Australia has not enforced arbitrary rules about online misinformation, which is widely acknowledged to be a novel and ambiguous concept.

Epoch Times Photo
Liberal candidate for Warringah Katherine Deves waits for Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a Liberal Party rally on Day 21 of the 2022 federal election campaign, at Accor Stadium in Sydney, Australia, on May 1, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

But under Fletcher’s proposal, a government agency would be given the power to define the “official” truth and what counts as acceptable opinions in public—and even private—debates.

Canberra’s thought police, represented by ACMA, would then enforce its standards against digital platforms that sign up to the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation.

Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook have already signed up to the Code, but it is currently voluntary and self-regulated. ACMA now wants the power to not only enforce the code but the power to devise its own standards and encourage platforms to be more “ambitious” in censoring content on their sites.

Where it really gets dangerous is in the idea of reducing “harm.” This is the key commitment of the Code and is the main objective of what ACMA would be enforcing. But harm is not defined how a regular person would understand it.

“Harm” is defined in the code with reference to things that would cause harm to ‘democratic’ processes such as “voting misinformation,” which would allow ACMA to make decisions about the kinds of content that could mislead people at an election. The scope that this gives ACMA to manage and manipulate public debate is obviously and grossly inconsistent with Australia’s tradition of free political communication during election periods.

The definition of harm also includes harms to “public goods” such as the “protection of citizens’ health, protection of marginalised or vulnerable groups, public safety and security or the environment.”

This could just about encompass any of the ever-changing values and priorities of the political class.

Oppose net-zero to address climate change? That is harmful to the environment.

Oppose lockdowns? That’s harmful to public health.

Or, if like Katherine Deves you believe the participation of biological males in women’s sports is unfair or unsafe, that would be harmful to a marginalised group.

Epoch Times Photo
A truck advertisement that targets Independent MP Zali Steggall’s view on transgender issues is seen in the Warringah electorate in Sydney, Australia on April 25, 2022. (Advance Australia/Facebook)

In effect, this would be a backdoor expansion of government hate speech laws online. Whereas the Racial Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to offend or insult a person because of their race or colour or nationality or ethnic origin, the disinformation laws would ban this kind of speech about any kind of victim group, as determined by the government.

What is noteworthy about this is what it reveals about the modern Liberal party. It was only in 2013 that the Liberal Party, in opposition to the Gillard Labor government, blocked in the senate the media reform laws put forward by Stephen Conroy.

The media reform laws, based on the recommendations of the Finkelstein Inquiry, were to establish a new government regulator of the media and give it the power to punish media outlets that failed to meet standards of “accuracy” and “fairness.”

Under Conroy’s media laws, the government effectively would have assumed the power to tell media outlets what they could say according to their definition of what was fair or accurate.

Now the government is resurrecting Finkelstein—Fletcher’s Finkelstein—to tell all Australians what they can say online according to their own definition of what is harmful disinformation.

That freedom of speech should be managed, and the parameters of the democratic debate should be narrowed, is now apparently a bipartisan value in Canberra.

But the powers Canberra is seeking for itself are completely unjustified and have no place in a free society that Australia once was and should aspire to be once again.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Morgan Begg is the director of the Legal Rights Program at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne, Australia. His interests lie in constitutional government and the rule of law, and freedom of speech and religion, particularly in relation to anti-discrimination laws.