Government set to have the power to force children to say sorry

It is with dismay to note that both houses of parliament have now passed the governments Enhancing Online Safety for Children Bill 2014. The minor amendments were yesterday agreed to in the House of Representatives, after being moved in the Senate on Wednesday.

The establishment of the Childrens e-Safety Commissioner (Ce-SC) is now a certainty.

The IPA’s Chris Berg and Simon Breheny made a submission to the parliament in March 2014, which raised a number of concerns with the bill, including freedom of speech implications.

However, there were even more concerning aspects of the bill. Rather than empowering civil society to regulate itself, it allows for the government to make itself responsible for adjudicating interpersonal relationships.

Clause 42(1)(g)(i) of the bill gives the Ce-SC the power to serve a notice on a child to apologise to the other child (or adult, if the child becomes an adult) for posting the social media material. If they fail to do so, the child faces the prospect of being brought before the Federal Court of Australia, and being compelled to apologise by way of an injunction.

As Senator David Leyonhjelm said in his speech against the bill:

It strikes me as reasonably obvious that the government should not force apologies. Mandated apologies are insincere. Moreover, one only has to watch the parade of public figures who, when forced by a variety of organisations, both public and private, to apologise, engage in backside-covering not ‘pologies’ that do nothing to assuage the victim’s hurt feelings and serve only to make everyone involved look like complete twits.

It is grossly improper in a free society that a government should have the power to force one child to apologise to another. This is a level of intrusion that effectively makes children wards of the state.

Another problem of the bill is the definition of bullying. One need not even be a direct recipient of bullying to make a complaint to the Ce-SC. Furthermore, the definition that it given is not set in stone. Clause 5(1)(b)(ii) provides that the material must be “likely to have the effect on the Australian child of seriously threatening, seriously intimidating, seriously harassing or seriously humiliating the child”. However, cl 5(b)(iii) allows for regulations to be made which set any other conditions. Future changes could quite easily be made to the definition of bullying in this way.

Despite this, there was little opposition to the bill. Senator Cory Bernardi (South Australia) raised genuine concern for the possibility of government over-reach, but ultimately supported it. Senator David Leyonhjelm (New South Wales) was the only Senator to speak against the proposal.

Either the remainder of parliament did not know what was in this bill, and voted in favour anyway, or it actually did know what was in this bill. One wonders which is worse.

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