Page 3753 - Week 10 - Wednesday, 27 August 2008

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I am a big believer in freedom of speech. I do not think that in this country we protect freedom of speech as well as we could and perhaps as well as it is protected in other places. We have defamation laws that place real restrictions on people’s freedom of speech and, in this area of law, on people’s freedom of protest.

Within reasonable limits of the law people should be free to protest. Whether we like it or not, whether we agree with them or not and whether we label them one thing or another, they should be free to go to government and say, “We do not agree with this.” I absolutely support the right of people to make that protest as long as it is done through lawful means, as long as it is not done in a violent way and as long as it is not done in a way that damages property. Peaceful protest is fundamental to a functioning democracy.

We know that organisations, governments and corporations are sensitive to criticism and sensitive to political action. We have seen numerous examples of governments or corporations using the law and the court process to shut down legitimate areas of debate. We saw the example that Dr Foskey raised in Tasmania. I am not going to drift outside the standing orders, but in my opinion at the moment the standing orders of this place are very restrictive on this point, and I think that is something that the new Assembly will have to look at. It may have been when Dr Foskey was presenting this very bill or it may have been on another issue where Dr Foskey was actually prevented by the standing orders from speaking about the Gunns case. Was it the tabling speech?

Dr Foskey: It was the tabling of this version of the bill.

MR SESELJA: It was the tabling speech. Under the standing orders, as they stand, court action in Tasmania prevented an elected representative in the ACT from putting forward her views. I do not quibble with the Speaker’s ruling on that, but I think that is something we have to look at. That is a real restriction on the ability of members in this place to debate issues.

I think it is a real restraint that a corporation that is running a court case anywhere in the country can prevent members of parliament in the ACT from advocating for their constituents and arguing about policy, ideas and legislation. I think that is a real restraint and I believe it is an unreasonable restraint. In the new Assembly we will look very closely at whether that standing order can be amended.

We should be free to speak with very few set limits on that freedom of speech. In parliament we should be particularly free to advocate for our constituents. But with parliamentary privilege come responsibilities. It is an uncomfortable reality that when we allow people freedom of speech a lot of the time things will be said that we do not like and people will be offended. But that is the nature of our democracy and that is the way that parliaments have been set up.

In this bill—we looked at it in the committee—the principle is absolutely right. There is no doubt that corporations and governments should not be able to unreasonably use the court process to shut down dissent and debate and political protest. That is the intention of the bill, and we support the principle of the bill. But we must be careful.

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