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  • Peter Francis Fenwick

Parliamentary Inquiry into Free Speech

John Stuart Mill

On 8 November 2016, pursuant to the section 7(c) of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011, the Attorney-General referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights the following two matters for inquiry and report: whether the operation of Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) (including sections 18C and 18D) impose unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech; and whether the complaints-handling procedures of the Australian Human Rights Commission should be reformed.


We live in one of the freest and most prosperous societies in the history of mankind. This has not happened by chance. It is due to the institutions we inherited from Britain: the rule of law; the principle of private property, a free enterprise economy, a culture that accepts a wide range of human rights.

Free speech is the right that underpins our democratic way of life. Other rights – to your religious and political beliefs, to choose your friends and associates and whom you may marry, your occupation, where you live, what clubs and societies you join, what you may read, or think and so on – cannot be given expression without the right to free speech.

This is what distinguishes us from the totalitarian regimes which deliver poverty, destroy trust among their citizens, and terrorize, censor and imprison or kill those who disagree with the party line.

Our current laws restrict discussion of issues which might offend someone. The consequences are disastrous. It’s hard to draw people’s attention to social problems if it is illegal to talk about them. If you cannot discuss them, you cannot solve them. Yet that is the effect of 18C and the processes of the Human Rights Commission.

The cases against the QUT students and Bill Leak have highlighted flaws that must be urgently addressed. Innocent citizens are being falsely accused, their reputations tarnished and compensation extorted.

Fundamental to our deliberations is the question of whether civility can be improved by laws, or whether gently evolving cultural norms maintain social cohesion and have greater impact.

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