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Senate reform would lock out micro-parties

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My Drum column this week criticises the calls from the major parties to reform the Australian electoral system to keep out minor party preference deals as undemocratic:

Think of a vote for a micro-party as a vote against the mainstream, rather than intellectual support of the full platform of, say, the HEMP Party or the Secular Party of Australia.

… All those micro-party votes pool together through the preference system and throw up a micro-party representative.

In past elections micro-party votes would just dissipate, because the micro-parties weren’t working together and there weren’t as many Australians voting against the big players.

Yes, Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party got a tiny number of direct votes. But it’s not about him. A Senate seat isn’t a personal reward. Muir represents all those in Victoria who voted “other”.

If we rewrote our electoral system to prevent micro-parties from preference aggregation we would, in a very real way, be disenfranchising those who rejected the majors.

Free speech and the public service

APSClogoIf you criticise your employer in public you put your job at risk. This is a reasonable condition of employment, at least in a world where corporate reputation has economic value.

Public servants are different. Their employer is the state. A free flow of discussion is a necessary constituent part of a healthy democracy. Public servants have not been disenfranchised – and nor would we want them to be – so their participation in that free debate is their right as citizens.

Public service neutrality is not premised upon public servants having no political views, rather that those views are held in a private capacity. Continue Reading →

In defence of the right to boycott

do-not-buy The parliamentary secretary for agriculture, Richard Colbeck, has floated once more the possibility of removing the exemption that environmental and consumer groups enjoy from the general ban on secondary boycotts.

On the ABC’s World Today I responded to this proposal. Boycotts, whether primary or secondary are a completely legitimate form of political expression. Any government that is pledged to support free speech should also support the right to boycott.

I also spelled out this argument in greater detail in the Drum in September last year.

Abbott government pressing ahead with social media censorship plan

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Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher has announced that the government is planning to draft legislation for its ‘Children’s e-Safety Commissioner’, according to ZDNet Australia:

Fletcher said today that the government would now proceed with legislation on the eSafety commissioner.

“It is clear that all stakeholders share the same objective, that is, to protect children from online dangers such as cyberbullying,” he said.

“I welcome the input we have received in these many thoughtful submissions, which will be carefully considered as we proceed to develop legislation.”

This is a terrible policy, as Simon Breheny and I explained in our submission to the Department of Communications, and I wrote in the Sunday Age last weekend. The government’s proposals will do nothing to tackle the root causes of bullying, ignore solutions that already exist, and will vest the government with a vast new censorship power.

Of course we wait to see the legislation. But it’s astounding that at the exact time the government is looking at reforming the Racial Discrimination Act to protect freedom of speech, it would be also looking to clamp down on that very same freedom on social media networks.

Section 18C reforms are (almost) a full repeal

In my ABC Drum column today, I talk about what the Coalition government’s proposed reforms to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act mean for freedom of speech in Australia:

George Brandis’s exposure draft of amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act is a magnificent example of how to repeal legislation without admitting you’re repealing legislation.

It is, without doubt, a reform that advances the cause of freedom of speech in Australia.

The reforms neuter the provision (Section 18C) which Andrew Bolt was found to have breached in 2011 with his newspaper columns discussing white-skinned Aboriginal people.

I was also interviewed on ABCNews24 about why we need to protect freedom of speech as a fundamental human right:

ASIO: Fixing one massive privacy breach with a second massive privacy breach

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The recently released submission by ASIO to the Senate Inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 argues, unashamedly, that Edward Snowden’s exposure of a massive US government encroachment on privacy means that Australia needs to massively encroach privacy too:

These changes are becoming far more significant in the security environment following the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Since the Snowden leaks, public reporting suggests the level of encryption on the internet has increased substantially. In direct response to these leaks, the technology industry is driving the development of new internet standards with the goal of having all Web activity encrypted, which will make the challenges of traditional telecommunications interception for necessary national security purposes far more complex.

You can read ASIO’s submission here. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported last night, many of Australia’s law enforcement bodies have lined up to support a mandatory data retention scheme. Even regulators like ASIC want data retention.

In 2012 Simon Breheny and I argued that the Gillard government’s proposed mandatory data retention would risk a serious breach of our civil liberties.

But the Snowden angle is a new one, demonstrating the rhetorical leaps that agencies such as ASIO are willing to make to grab new powers.

First person charged under Queensland’s out of control party laws

The first person has been charged under Queensland’s out of control party legislation after a Townsville party devolved into a brawl:

The 17 year old man was charged after 17 police units (31 officers) were required to quell a disturbance at Gulliver on Saturday night.

Senior Sergeant Graeme Paterson says when police arrived at the Parsons Street address about 100 people were in the street.

“There was fighting occurring out on the street, there were bottles being thrown around, there was broken glass around the area, the initial police crew required the assistance of many other police crews,” he said.

One police officer had a full can of alcohol thrown at her, police charged other party goers with liquor, drug and wilful damage offences.

Of course, fighting, throwing things at police, drug use and property damage are already illegal. Even being drunk in public is a crime in Queensland.

What’s new about the out of control party legislation is that it places sanctions on the host of the party, blaming them for the criminal acts of their guests.

The party had been registered with the police, as it was required to be, and was only intended to have forty attendees. Despite this, the 17 year old is liable for a $12,100 fine or one year’s jail.

As I wrote in the Drum as these laws were being considered in November last year:

Defending his out-of-control parties bill, the Queensland Police Minister has argued that “the majority of people who do the right thing have nothing to fear”. Well, that’s not the way the bill is written. Not if the letter of the law is enforced. No free society should rest their liberties on the discretion of the agents of the state.

New cyber regulator not the answer to bullying

“The government’s proposed anti-cyberbullying laws represent a serious threat to freedom of speech and digital liberty,” Chris Berg, Policy Director with free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, said today.

The government proposes to set up a ‘Children’s e-Safety Commissioner’ which would have the power to remove ‘harmful’ content from social media sites.

Mr Berg placed a submission into the Commonwealth government’s discussion paper on the Coalition’s Policy to Enhance Online Safety for Children. It was co-authored by the Director of the IPA’s Legal Rights Project Simon Breheny.

“Let’s call the government’s proposal for what it is: a new censorship power vested in a Canberra bureaucrat,” said Mr Berg.

“Bullying is a very serious problem. But the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner will do nothing to assist children who are being bullied.

“There are a large number of existing laws which already cover any conduct which could be considered cyberbullying.

“The Commonwealth Criminal Code already prohibits menacing, offensive, and insulting conduct on the internet. On top of that there are defamation laws, anti-stalking and harassment laws, and laws which protect against threats of harm,” said Mr Berg.

“Children and their parents need better education about what remedies and protections are already available to them, not a new bureaucracy.

“The Abbott government maintains it was elected to pursue a ‘freedom agenda.’ One of the best things the government could do for freedom right now would be to abandon this worthless but dangerous social media censorship scheme,” said Mr Berg.

The IPA submission to the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner inquiry is available at http://ipa.org.au/publications/2241/enhancing-online-safety-for-children

For further information and comment: Chris Berg, Policy Director, 0402 257 681, cberg [at] ipa [dot] org [dot] au

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