Australian Law Reform Commission President, Professor David Weisbrot, welcomed the Government’s positive response to the ALRC’s 2006 report Fighting Words: A Review of Sedition Laws in Australia (ALRC Report 104), announced today by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, the Hon Robert McClelland MP.
The ALRC made 27 recommendations for reform of the law in this area, and the Government has accepted 25 of these unconditionally and two of them ‘in principle’. In effect, the Government will be implementing the ALRC report in full.
Prof Weisbrot commented that “we are naturally delighted with the Government’s formal response. The ALRC Report recognised that free speech and robust political debate are the cornerstones of our democratic society.
“The basic thrust of our recommendations was to create a bright line in the law between free speech—however robust, confronting or unpopular—and conduct calculated to incite violence in the community, which properly should be regarded as criminal activity.
“The law also has to be clear enough to ensure that media commentators, satirists, artists and activists are not only safe from criminal prosecution, but also from the ‘chilling effect’ of uncertainty.”
“Context is critical in these circumstances, so the courts should be required to take into account whether the conduct in question was a part of artistic expression; or genuine academic or scientific discussion; or a news report or commentary,” Prof Weisbrot said.
Prof Weisbrot outlined the major recommendations in the Fighting Words report accepted by the Government, which include:
- eliminating the ‘red rag’ term ‘sedition’ from the federal statute book;
- refining the existing offences to ensure that they only cover circumstances in which a person urges others to use force or violence against community groups or the institutions of democratic government (including elections), intending this violence to eventuate;
- leading a process through the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General to reform state and territory laws in this area “which mostly are a good deal worse than the federal law”;
- amending the offences of treason and ‘assisting’ the enemy, to clarify that this refers to material assistance—such as providing arms, funds, personnel or strategic information;
- repeal of the outdated ‘unlawful associations’ provisions in the Crimes Act, which have been superseded by more recent laws dealing with terrorist organisations;
- reviewing some old, related offences—such as ‘treachery’ and ‘sabotage’—to determine whether these should now be ‘modernised’ or simply repealed; and
- pursuing other non-punitive strategies, such as education, to promote inter-communal harmony and understanding.