Are sedition laws necessary and effective?

Monday, 20 March 2006: An independent review of federal sedition laws is asking whether the controversial laws are necessary and effective.

Australian Law Reform Commission President, Professor David Weisbrot, called for public comment today with the release of a community consultation paper Review of Sedition Laws (ALRC Issues Paper 30).

The federal government ‘modernised’ the old sedition offences in the Crimes Act last year by enacting the Anti-Terrorism Act (No 2) 2005, which targets activity promoting terrorist violence.

The sedition laws provoked particular controversy. The main concerns are that these laws are not sufficiently clear, overlap with other criminal offences, and may be inconsistent with Australia ’s liberal democratic system by inhibiting freedom of speech.

Prof Weisbrot said it was understandable that the term ‘sedition’ prompts strong reactions.

“Sedition laws historically have a political connection. They tend to be introduced or revived at times of great social stress—in Australia, for example, during the anti-conscription movement of World War I, during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, and now again with rising concern about international terrorism.

“However, the new offences abandon the old definition of ‘sedition’, which turned on ‘exciting disaffection against the Sovereign or among her Majesty’s subjects’,” he said.

“Instead, the new offences include: ‘urging the use of force or violence’ to overthrow the government or interfere with an election; urging others to assist an organisation or country engaged in armed hostilities with Australia; or urging others to engage in violence against particular groups in the community.

“The Issues Paper tries to take some of the emotion out of the debate and it focuses on whether the new laws are necessary, how clearly they have been expressed, how effectively they will achieve their aims and how they fit in with the many other laws dealing with public order and the special problems of counter-terrorism. For example, sedition overlaps with other serious offences such as incitement, treason, treachery, sabotage and racial vilification.

“The review also will look closely at the ‘unlawful associations’ provisions of the Crimes Act, which have not been used for decades and may no longer be needed in light of more recent legislation dealing with terrorist organisations,” he said.

“The Issues Paper asks 24 questions about how best to proceed, and with a very tight timetable the ALRC is seeking urgent community feedback on these matters,” Prof Weisbrot said.

The Issues Paper and other relevant information about the review are available online.

The ALRC invites anyone with an interest in the sedition inquiry to make a submission, or to register online and receive email updates on the progress of the inquiry.