In Freedom of Speech

Premier Bracks fails to deliver on his promise to soften his racial vilification laws. They are oppressive, divisive and deceitful.

Steve Bracks has broken the September vow he gave to religious leaders to make his vilification laws less dangerous.

Last week, the Premier’s representatives finally revealed what he actually had in mind.

Surprise. He will in fact make the bureaucrats running these “shut-up” laws not less powerful, but more.

He will ensure they operate not in less secrecy, but more.

And people who say “bad” things about, say, witches or the Koran, face not less punishment, but more.

In a deep hole, Bracks has called for a longer shovel. And with it, he’ll bury your right to free speech.

You’d think a sensible man would realise these laws, introduced in 2001, should be scrapped, given the strife they’ve caused in what was a wonderfully tolerant state.

After all, they have been used by a pedophile witch objecting to the Bible class of a Salvation Army prison chaplain, by a transgender witch upset by a Christian councillor’s warnings against covens and by a One Nation candidate, who was cross I’d praised Jews and Asians.

Even the Minister Assisting on Multicultural Affairs, ethnic Greek John Pandazopoulos, was taken to the Equal Opportunity Commission by touchy Macedonians.

Most notoriously, these laws caused two Christian pastors to be punished for, in large part, simply quoting the Koran to their followers in a way the judge found got “a response from the audience at various times in the form of laughter”.

God forbid that Christians should privately laugh at the Koran. There orta be a law.

And thanks to Bracks, there now is, with effects that have horrified even his most senior Labor colleagues, especially the sight of Christians and Muslims arguing heatedly outside the guarded court in which the pastors were convicted. Wasn’t that the kind of tension these laws were meant to stop, rather than start?

So the Labor Governments of both NSW and South Australia hastily dropped plans for their own vilification laws. As then NSW premier Bob Carr said: “The Victorian experience spells out how anti-religious vilification can be misused.”

And a month ago federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said Bracks should kill his laws, adding: “I don’t think that it’s a good thing to have one section of the community, invited if you like, to take action against another section of the community.”

Meanwhile, church leaders who once foolishly applauded these laws at last realised they’d been cheering their own crucifixion. The Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians all asked for changes, if not repeal.

They thought they got that promise from Bracks in meetings three months ago, and an offer to consider their own ideas. The Presbyterian Church started drafting suggested amendments to ensure no minister need fear prosecution for proclaiming his faith, and honestly criticising the alternatives.

But for many weeks, the churches heard nothing more from the Government, until it summoned them a fortnight ago to meetings just four or five days later. So short was the notice that some couldn’t make it.

Those who did attend were handed just a page and a half, listing three possible “reforms”. Some were astonished, even angered, by what they read. Weren’t the laws meant to be made weaker, not stronger?

Let’s go through the Government’s proposals so you can see what it has in store for those who speak frankly. First, and best, Bracks wants to give the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal [VCAT] the power to throw out a case even before holding any hearings, to weed out the more worthless complaints.

But this is only a partial cure to the disease. As it now is, a crank activist upset by something you’ve said can first take you to the Equal Opportunity Commission [EOC], where you must defend yourself – hiring lawyers, if you can afford it.

Even if the EOC decides the case is crazy, the crank can still demand to go on to a hearing at VCAT, which will cost you even more.

The Government’s proposed change might save some defendants the cost of a full VCAT hearing, but the crank still gets two free whacks at you.

The remaining two proposals are even worse.

The first is to give the EOC even more power in the first conciliation stage – usually held in private. It would be able to demand that you and the crank give information and attend conciliation meetings, and to fine you if you refuse to “comply with any directions”. Fancy your chances with a tolerance commissar who can fine you for being uncooperative?

If you think the Government actually means by this to crack down on the crank rather than you, read its scrap of paper: this change is to “encourage” conciliation and “resolve tensions between persons who (as a result of their ignorance of the attributes of others and the effect that their conduct may have on others) vilify others on the ground of race or religious belief and activity and those who are vilified”.

As you see, it’s the accused, not their accusers, who have most to fear. Who are presumed guilty. Who must have their “ignorance” corrected by a campaigning bureaucrat armed with fines.

The Government’s final proposal proves it. It suggests more “remedies for non-compliance of VCAT orders”, with VCAT “able to implement a non-monetary order and charge that back to the respondent”.

You probably have no idea what that means. So let me explain, using the Christian pastors as an example.

The two pastors tell me they will not do what VCAT has now ordered – place expensive advertisements in the papers saying they were wrong in criticising the Koran. They cannot bear false witness, they say.

Under the Government’s proposals, those pastors—who already have immense legal bills—will find VCAT can place those ads for them, and bill them the cost.

And if they refuse to pay …

As I said, Steve Bracks has broken his promise to make his laws less sinister.

But worse, he has made it even more dangerous for us to speak our mind on some of the most pressing issues before us—religion and culture. How oppressive. How divisive. How deceitful.

Andrew Bolt writes a regular opinion column for the Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun. This article was first published in the Herald Sun on 2 December 2005 and is republished by permission.
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