IPA Executive Director John Roskam this week wrote to IPA members about the role they played in defeating Nicola Roxon on anti-discrimination law.
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Dear IPA member
‘My two grandfathers didn’t fight on the Western Front in the First World War; my father didn’t fight in Burma in the Second World War; and my mother wasn’t a fire lookout in South London during the War so that my children in Australia in 2012 would suffer under a law that makes it against the law to express a political opinion if you offend someone.’
That’s exactly what Chris, an IPA member in Sydney, said to me when he rang me on my mobile phone as soon as I told IPA members just how dangerous the Gillard government’s draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill is.
Chris’s shock that an Australian government would attempt to make it against the law to express an opinion if it ‘insulted’ or ‘offended’ someone was shared by IPA members across the country. I was inundated with phone calls, emails, and letters of support from IPA members who wanted to know how they could help fight the legislation.
There were two reactions from the dozens and dozens of IPA members who got in touch with me about the legislation.
The first reaction was the same as Chris’s. It was shock.
The second reaction was ‘thank goodness for the IPA!’
Members couldn’t believe how this wasn’t a front page story and they couldn’t believe how it was literally only the IPA who was warning about how bad the proposed law was and how it would take away our basic freedoms – the freedoms that Chris’s grandfathers, and his father and mother risked their lives for.
Members asked me what had Australia come to when the only people standing up for our freedoms was a small think tank and its 2,400 members? Where was the media? Where were all the ‘civil liberties’ groups? Have Australians really stopped caring about their basic rights?
If I may I’d like to take a few moments to give you the exact timeline of what happened after the Gillard government announced it wanted to take away our basic freedoms.
I think it’s important to tell you precisely how events unfolded so that you can see how your support of the IPA made a difference and you can see how everyone else in Australia just stood aside and let the government take our freedoms.
- On Tuesday 20November 2012, the then Attorney-General Nicola Roxon released draft legislation of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012. She said that the legislation was supposedly to consolidate five different pieces of discrimination law into a single piece of legislation. The first obvious problem with the draft legislation was that it reversed the onus of proof, i.e. if you were accused of discrimination you were assumed to be guilty. In the IPA’s view reversing the onus of proof was enough reason for us to automatically call for the legislation to be stopped and this is what we did in a press release we issued on the day, ‘Gillard Government’s Anti-Discrimination Changes Threaten Legal Rights’.
- Overnight, the head of the IPA’s Legal Rights Project, Simon Breheny studied the draft legislation. He found that the draft legislation made it against the law to insult or offend someone on the basis of their political opinions or social origin.
- On Wednesday 21 November 2012, the next day, we issued a press release – the key part which read ‘The right to hold and express political opinions is fundamental to a liberal democracy. The Gillard government’s proposed changes to anti-discrimination laws threaten to eliminate these freedoms.’ Also on Wednesday 21 November Simon emailed every Federal member of parliament and senator telling them what we found. Would you like to guess how many responses he got? Two! There are 226 MPs and Senators in the Federal parliament.
- On Friday 23 November The Australian published a major article by Simon in which Simon explained how the law was an attack on free speech. This was the first article in the Australian media talking about why this law would curtail free speech.
I expected that once politicians and the media were told how bad the law was there would be an outcry. But do you know what happened? Nothing!
For more than two weeks after Simon’s article was published, and more than three weeks since the draft law was released, the only people talking about the freedom of speech implications of the law were IPA staff. While everyone else was silent the IPA was fighting hard. We emailed IPA members to inform them about it and we wrote about it extensively on http://FreedomWatch.ipa.org.au.
- Finally, three weeks after the Gillard government first announced its plans to take away our fundamental freedoms, the IPA was joined on Monday 10 December 2012 by former NSW Supreme Court Chief Justice, James Spigelman who said he was worried by how the draft law would affect freedom of speech. It was extraordinary that it was Spigelman, appointed by the Gillard government to chair the ABC, and a former political staffer to Gough Whitlam, who was the second voice to criticise the law.
- On Tuesday 11 December 2012 I took the unusual step of writing to every Liberal and National Party MP and Senator to outline my concerns about the draft legislation. I have included my letter in this pack so that you can read it for yourself.
The dam finally broke after my letter to Coalition MPs and Senators and after Spigelman’s comments. Since then hardly a day has gone past without a mention of the legislation.
As you now know our hard work paid off!
On Thursday 31 January 2013 Nicola Roxon announced she’d backed down. She announced that the government would make changes to the draft legislation so that it would not be unlawful to insult or offend people. In a media release that day Roxon promised that her Department would offer the Senate committee examining the law some ‘options’ to fix the way the law curtailed free speech. This represented a huge and humiliating back down.
Furthermore, Roxon’s back down was revealing. If the government agrees there shouldn’t be new laws that protect people from being ‘offended’ or ‘insulted’ then what about the existing laws that do exactly that? The infamous section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that was used to haul Andrew Bolt to court relies heavily on almost the exact same form of words proposed for the new laws.
Roxon’s back down was welcome – and we were pleased – but her promises didn’t go far enough. The IPA said the whole law should be dropped and that’s what we repeated in our press release of that day ‘Roxon Back Down Welcome, But Doesn’t Go Far Enough’.
And then of course two days after her back down Roxon announced she was quitting as Attorney-General! More than one media commentator has already linked her departure to our campaign on the anti-discrimination law, including ABC radio host Jon Faine, who asked Roxon’s replacement Mark Dreyfus whether her departure amounted to a win for the IPA. Janet Albrechtsen, writing in The Australian, directly credited our FreedomWatch program – and IPA members – for this important victory.
During December and January we worked tirelessly. On 21 December we issued our Factsheet on the legislation and we put in our submission to the Senate inquiry on it. On 23 December Chris Berg wrote in The Sunday Age about how dangerous the legislation was. On 27 December my letter to Coalition MPs and Senators was quoted in The Australian. On 9 January we issued a press release pointing out how the government was misleading the public about the effect of the legislation. On 23 January, the IPA’s Simon Breheny, Chris Berg, and Tim Wilson gave evidence at the Senate inquiry. And all the while IPA staff were giving numerous media interviews about the threat to our freedoms posed by the legislation.
As the IPA’s Simon Breheny pointed out in his media interviews and as he said in his article in The Australian on Friday 25 January, so-called human rights advocates are not really interested in human rights at all. Instead, they are interested in using our tax dollars to campaign and lobby for bigger government, more laws and fewer freedoms. It’s one of the reasons the IPA has called for the abolition of the Australian Human Rights Commission – and this is an issue we will continue to pursue. You can read Simon’s important article on this topic, which I have included with this letter.
I’m delighted the federal Coalition recognised the threats posed by the Gillard government’s legislation. The shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis wrote a very good and very strong piece in The Australian which is so important I have included it with this letter. It was extremely pleasing to see that the Coalition formally resolved to oppose this law outright. In a meeting of the Parliamentary Party Room in Canberra on Monday 5th February, Coalition MPs and Senators voted unanimously to oppose the Bill when it is brought to parliament – no matter how much the government amends it.
Mark Dreyfus, the new Attorney-General has sent very mixed messages about the legislation. On the one hand he has described section 18C as a “good law”, but at the same time described himself as a defender of free speech and even acknowledged the government’s entire anti-discrimination reforms might need to be dropped. Simon Breheny has written to Dreyfus asking him to urgently clarify where he stands on anti-discrimination law and free speech.
Before I end I need to give you an apology!
This letter should have been sent to you last week. After Nicola Roxon announced her resignation on a Saturday morning two weeks ago, I emailed all IPA members that afternoon because I was sure they would want to hear the news. I mentioned that in the following week I would send members an update on our work on freedom of speech. I didn’t do that because so much was happening so quickly that I wanted to give you as up-to-date information as possible.
The one week delay in sending you this letter gives me the opportunity to tell how last Monday the IPA’s James Paterson went on the ABC’s Q&A and launched a stinging attack on what the government proposed.
Then on Wednesday last week Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission appeared before a hearing of a Senate Committee in the Commonwealth Parliament and she was asked by the shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis why it was up to organisations like the IPA to stand up for human rights such as freedom of speech. She didn’t have an answer!
And just yesterday on Sunday morning, Simon Breheny debated Triggs on Channel Seven telling her that the taxpayer-funded Australian Human Rights Commission was ‘leading the charge’ in trying to restrict freedom of speech in Australia. Incredibly Triggs said that if it had its way the Commission would be keen to make it against the law to insult or offend someone!!!
WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT YOUR SUPPORT OF THE IPA?
The sad truth though is that if you didn’t support the IPA it’s quite likely the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill would have slipped through without anyone noticing. Such as section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which is the law that sent Andrew Bolt to court.
We could have woken up one day and discovered it was against the law to make a politcal comment that insulted or offended someone.
That’s why your membership of the Institute of Public Affairs makes a difference.
That’s why I ask you for donations to fund our research.
Unlike those groups who want to abolish our freedoms, like the Australian Human Rights Commission, we don’t get taxpayer-funding. Every dollar the IPA gets is freely and voluntarily given by people who care about freedom.
We know that without you, we would not exist, and the important work that we do would not be done by anyone else.
The fight is far from over. But as long as the IPA can rely on your support, you can count on the IPA to be your voice.
Thank you for your support for the IPA and freedom in Australia – we could not do it without you.
Executive Director, Institute of Public Affairs