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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Freedom wars: preparations underway

In Opposition both Prime Minister Abbott and Attorney General Brandis spoke of the freedom wars. 

The guns are now being primed.

The announcement by Senator Brandis of the appointment of Tim Wilson of the Institute of Public Affairs as a Human Rights Commissioner follows last week's Freedoms reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission to review Commonwealth legislation to identify provisions that unreasonably encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges including freedom of speech.

With regard to the Wilson appointment, Senator Brandis explained:
During the election campaign, I promised to create at least one “Freedom Commissioner” at the Australian Human Rights Commission. Next year, I intend to bring forward reforms to the Commission. In the meantime, I have asked Mr Wilson to focus on the protection of the traditional liberal democratic and common law rights, including, in particular, the rights recognised by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Article 19 states:
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Article 19 includes the right to seek information.

So it remains to be seen whether the ALRC and Mr Wilson interpret their respective briefs as encompassing the Freedom of Information Act - Dr Hawke acknowledged a more comprehensive review was needed than he had undertaken - and the chilling effect of hundreds of secrecy provisions in Commonwealth laws identified close to four years ago in an ALRC report that has been undisturbed and gathering dust in the Attorney General's Department ever since.

The Institute of Public Affairs is strong on freedoms but less so on other rights, arguing earlier this year that even self regulation should be optional for the media. (Since 2000 media organisations in the conduct of journalism have been exempt from the Privacy Act if they self regulate with no reference to the adequacy of self imposed standards. There are plenty out there that don't consider they do this anywhere near well enough. I'm sure in any event that the Attorney General and Mr Wilson know the ICCPR contains provisions other than Article 19 including Article 17 which puts protection of privacy up there as a human right as well.)

Mr Wilson is no slouch at utilising his right to access information, attracting the ire of one government agency in 2011 for making 750 FOI applications in a four month period including 440 on one day.

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