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Roxon’s doublespeak on proposed anti-discrimination laws

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon has defended the Gillard government’s proposed anti-discrimination laws in an op ed published in The Australian today.

Her piece is a blatant exercise in political propaganda and one of the most misleading things you’re likely to see from a government minister. For the benefit of FreedomWatchers, I’ve highlighted the worst of Roxon’s deceptions and why she’s so very wrong.

The most serious problem with the exposure draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 is that it is an attack on freedom of speech. But Roxon writes as if she is a defender of our most fundamental rights. She states that the government is not seeking “to prohibit people engaging in a discussion on political, religious or other topical matters. No democratic government ever should.”

But this is precisely what the government would achieve if the exposure draft were to become law. By defining discrimination as conduct that “offends” or “insults,” opinions that others find offensive or insulting would become unlawful. Not only is this threshold freedom of speech-crushingly low, it also applies in relation to attributes like “political opinion,” “religion” and “social origin.” Despite this definition of discrimination in the exposure draft, Roxon includes this extraordinary line in her piece: “Despite what some reports may have said, it is not the case that any conduct that a person finds offensive will be unlawful.” To expose Roxon’s deception, simply read for yourself the proposed definition of discrimination here.

If Australia’s chief law officer failed to recognise such an obvious outcome of the draft law it would be a serious concern. But the game Roxon is playing is devious. None of us should be fooled into thinking that Roxon is ignorant of the kind of world her draft laws would create. Roxon’s assertion that “If some argue our draft does this inadvertently, then our consultation has done its job by flushing this out with plenty of time to fix” is of no comfort at all. The free speech implications are so obvious that one can only assume that it was the intention of the government to draft a law that would have precisely these consequences.

We know that the proposed law will impact on free speech because the same language was used to silence Andrew Bolt. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes it unlawful to offend or insult someone on the basis of their race. This is exactly the form of words used in the exposure draft. But once again, Roxon misleads readers by trying to argue that “It is also not the case that the specific prohibition against racial vilification would be extended to other types of vilification.”

Roxon’s stated goal is to make anti-discrimination law easier to understand. To say, however, that this is not obvious from the exposure draft would be an understatement of epic proportions. In fact, there are a number of aspects of the exposure draft that would make the law far more complex than the current anti-discrimination regime. Two of the most significant examples are the reverse burden of proof and the subjective test for offensive conduct. Apart from being outrageous departures from fair legal process, they also add complications to the current regime. But Roxon completely ignores these monstrosities in her defence of the proposed regime – a deception by omission that is strikingly brazen to anyone who has read and understood the draft Bill.

The attorney-general’s references to “striking a balance” are a joke. Nicola Roxon’s proposed law would give courts enormous power to decide the acceptable limits of political discussion and religious expression, and her deceptive defence of the exposure draft takes us all for fools.

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