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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2001 Week 10 Hansard (30 August) . . Page.. 3809 ..

MR STANHOPE (continuing):

As is normally the case with important legislation, I have carried out some consultation on the bill. The Labor Party has decided to support the bill, recognising that it is a start on making important reforms. The bill may have to be reviewed after we have had an opportunity to gauge its practical effects. The amendments proposed by the government seem sensible and to accord with the standing committee's recommendations.

I understand that it is the government's intention that the amendments provide at least some incentives for the media to avoid damage to reputations. This is done by the "natural justice" approach, requiring the media to give a person who is to be the subject of a story an opportunity to be heard. The media will not be able to publish stories without verifying them at the source.

The compensation offers are for any economic loss and/or harm to reputation if a publication imputes criminal behaviour by the aggrieved person. These alternatives give both parties an incentive to settle the matter quickly within realistic bounds. Given the uncertain outcome of litigation that takes on average more than three years to reach a conclusion, a prospective litigant may be satisfied with a published retraction and apology, supplemented by compensation and expenses. It remains to be seen whether these intentions are realised or whether reform will be quickly required.

I conclude, Mr Speaker, by again acknowledging that this is an area of law which governments around Australia have effectively squibbed since I do not know when. To that extent, I acknowledge that the government, in bringing forward this legislation, has at least an intention to be proactive-to intervene in an area of law that governments have found to be not important enough or simply too difficult; or an area that governments have not been prepared to bite the bullet on.

I am conscious that the government's bill went some significant way further than will be the case as a result of the amendments that have been negotiated. I might signal now that I have some mixed views about the extent to which we should continue to pursue defamation law reform. It is an area of law that I also accept as being grievously outdated and outmoded. I think we in the ACT have suffered more than other jurisdictions as a result of that, particularly to the extent that plaintiffs have chosen to use our court system as the venue for pursuing actions in defamation, with effectively a significant cost to ACT ratepayers in that our courts have been tied up in dealing with matters that really are not particularly the responsibility of the people of the ACT.

I am also mindful, in our support for these amendments, of the fact that the law of defamation as it currently applies is one of those laws that are really only relevant to people who are extremely rich. Defamation law in Australia is accessed only by people with significant wealth or with access to wealth. This is one of the great absurdities and issues that point most strongly and significantly to the need for some real reform in relation to defamation.

There are also, of course-and perhaps this is something that is more philosophical than real-continuing issues around our devotion or dedication to freedom of speech. Reform in the area of defamation law is very relevant to issues around the extent to which we embrace the notion of the right of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. This is something, of course, which is a particular fondness of leading proprietors of newspapers and those that perhaps are on the other end of defamation actions. Nevertheless, it is part

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