Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2008 Week 04 Hansard (Wednesday, 9 April 2008) . . Page.. 1175 ..
a democratic society. In addition these lawsuits against public participation create enormous stress and financial burden for the people and groups who are sued and clog our court systems with arguments which belong in political rather than legal arenas.
Free speech and robust public debate, together with the ability to participate in community and political activity without fear of litigation, are fundamental rights in a democratic society. The increasing and widespread use of defamation law, trade practices laws and economic torts laws against public participation must be wound back. It is no coincidence that societies where these rights of public participation are curtailed have historically been burdened with corruption, inefficiency and often disastrous decision making.
Legislation specifically to protect the community’s right to public debate and participation has been introduced in 25 jurisdictions in the United States. We call on Australian governments to introduce similar laws and work together to achieve national or uniform legislation in Australia.
They are not saying, “Don’t do anything until COAG comes up with the lowest common denominator model.” We do not believe, for instance, that the Tasmanian Labor government is likely to support a model law that will curtail the ability of the forest industry to use the court system—or misuse the court system—to attack its opponents.
It is not good enough for the ACT government to say that it is waiting for COAG to come up with something. At the moment I have the ability to speak here, but people outside this place do not have the same ability to speak. COAG might take decades; the Stanhope government was not too scared to implement its own Human Rights Act so it should not be too scared to give that act some more substance by ensuring that the right of free speech receives at least some meagre protection.
I am the first to admit that in this bill the right of public participation is a watered-down version of what I believe any functional and self-respecting democracy requires and deserves. But I accept that achieving small incremental changes is more affordable than trying to get where we should be overnight.
Another argument put forward in opposition is that courts already have strike-out powers so the bill is unnecessary. I am running out of time, so I will have to save this until the substantive debate.
I urge all members of the government and the opposition to have a really good look at this legislation. I understand that it has been through a very thorough analysis by the legal affairs committee and that it is groundbreaking legislation which complements our Human Rights Act.
Debate (on motion by Mr Corbell) adjourned to the next sitting.
MR CORBELL (Molonglo—Attorney-General, Minister for Police and Emergency Services): I seek your leave to make a personal explanation under standing order 46.