It will remain illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people on the basis of their “race, colour, or national or ethnic origin”, after the federal government abandoned its election promise to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a “leadership call” and overruled Attorney-General George Brandis, who had been pushing for the amendment. The decision was made after a strong public backlash. It was revealed last week that more than 75% of submissions in the consultation process were opposed to the plan. However, not everyone is pleased by the backdown. The Prime Minister phoned Andrew Bolt to tell him of the decision before it was announced publicly, and Bolt is not pleased. He has previously breached section 18C in writing about light-skinned Aboriginal people, and now complains that he will be unable to speak his mind about “Muslims” and “people from the Middle East”.
The Queensland Police Service has been accused of attempting to influence politics by releasing misleading crime statistics during a by-election campaign. The Police Commissioner claimed crime had fallen by 10% in the past year, but criminologist Professor Kerry Carrington claimed this was based on “cherry-picking”: “When you look at the whole database there’s only been a very minor drop of around 2 per cent.” Terry O’Gorman, chair of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, said it was reminiscent of the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen Government: “During the ’70s and ’80s police used to regularly release crime statistics that were wrong in order to support the government of the day.” In Victoria, a similar scandal around the 2010 election led to the establishment of an independent Crime Statistics Agency, which will begin on 1 January 2015.
Regardless who wins the next Victorian election, section 19A of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) will be on their legislative agenda. The provision makes it an offence to “intentionally causes another person to be infected with a very serious disease”. It was added in 1993 in response to community fears about an AIDS epidemic, and “very serious disease” is defined to only include one disease: HIV, which causes AIDS. Health experts say section 19A is counterproductive because it stigmatises people with HIV, discouraging them from seeking treatment. At the 20th International AIDS Conference, held in Melbourne earlier this month, the Victorian Health Minister, David Davis, announced the government’s “intention to amend section 19A”. This was cautiously welcomed by delegates at the conference, though they still had concerns; the Victorian AIDS Council said: “We are concerned by … the possibility that section 19A could be converted into a general provision covering other infectious diseases. We believe that would be a step in the wrong direction.” Soon afterwards, the Shadow Health Minister, Gavin Jennings, promised to repeal the section altogether.
The Legislative Assembly has voted to “name” the Member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw, suspending him without pay for 11 sitting days. In addition, he will be required to repay $5220.75 for the misuse of his office car, pay an additional fine of $1617.69, refrain from interstate or overseas travel, and apologise to the Legislative Assembly. If he fails to comply by 2 September, he will be expelled. Former Speaker Ken Smith, despite hinting he might cross the floor, voted with the government. This meant Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews was unable to amend the motion to expel Shaw from parliament immediately. The Opposition received legal advice that expulsion was an available penalty, and other constitutional experts agree. Monash University’s Greg Taylor said, “They can expel you for wearing the wrong coloured jacket or not polishing your shoes.” However, he added: “This is a nuclear bomb option.” ACU’s Greg Craven argues that “expelling an elected member is contempt of democracy itself.” No MP has been expelled from the Victorian parliament since 1901. The Commonwealth parliament legislated to remove its own power to expel MPs in 1987. During Shaw’s suspension, votes on the floor of the Legislative Assembly will be tied 43-43, with the Speaker casting a deciding vote.
The Victorian Parliament’s Privileges Committee, which is responsible for investigating wrongdoing by MPs, has split along party lines in its report on the Member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw. The inquiry began when Shaw’s misuse of a government vehicle for his private business was found by the Ombudsman to be in breach of guidelines. The Liberal and National majority report found that Shaw’s contraventions were not “wilful”, but he should be required to repay the money. The Labor minority said he was “completely reckless, careless and indifferent to obligations”, and warned: “All options are on the table, including the expulsion of Geoff Shaw from parliament, the suspension of Geoff Shaw or a heavy fine.” For his part, Shaw says the committee were “nuff-nuffs”. The issue is sensitive, as Shaw holds the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly, and the Government relies on his support to pass its bills. The former Speaker, Ken Smith—who was forced to resign under pressure from Shaw—has announced his intention to cross the floor and vote to adopt the minority report, possibly suspending Shaw and creating a 43-43 vote deadlock in the Assembly. Shaw says he will run for parliament again as an independent, so the people of Frankston will have the final say.
Attorney-General George Brandis is reportedly “preparing to water down a controversial plan to scrap sections of the Racial Discrimination Act that restrict racist insults and hate speech”. A draft bill was released for public comment in March. As a result of lobbying, protests, petitions and written submissions, the Attorney-General is now rewriting the proposal, saying, “We did not engage in a period of both private and public consultation without intending to listen to what people had to say to us“. The government received more than 5300 submissions on the bill. (My submission is available here.)
Freedom of Information laws are designed to increase government accountability by allowing citizens to access documents related to government actions. However, concerns have been raised about how effective the arrangements are. In Victoria, the FOI Commissioner is struggling to process the large volume of requests. The cost of the Commonwealth system has been criticised, after a software developer was billed $720.30 in fees to access 130 pages of correspondence—including charges for 36.12 hours of decision-making time, or more than a full working week. “I assume that most of that is boosted up and inflated in order to kind of deter people from making FOI requests”, he said. He had requested any documents referring to Stop Tony Meow, a “browser extension that replaces photos of Tony Abbott with pictures of cute kittens”. The government’s response can be viewed at Right to Know, a website that helps citizens lodge federal FOI requests.
A parliamentary committee has released its report on the Future of Victoria’s Electoral Administration, including a recommendation to adopt optional preferential voting for Legislative Assembly elections. Under full preferential voting, people must number every box on the ballot paper. Under an optional preferential system, voters would have to indicate their first choice, and then choose how many further preferences to allocate. The ABC’s electoral analyst, Antony Green, suggests the proposal might be driven by politics, as it would advantage the Liberal party. Although the recommendation was included in the final report, it was only supported by the two Liberal MPs on the committee. The three Labor and National MPs submitted minority reports rejecting the plan.
Question Time today was interrupted for an unusual procedural matter: “For the first time since 1949, an opposition was trying to move a motion of no confidence in the Speaker of the House of Representatives.” As the MP charged with ensuring that parliamentary debates and votes run fairly and smoothly, the Westminster system requires the Speaker to carry out her functions impartially. Shortly after Bronwyn Bishop’s appointment last year, Dr Paul Williams expressed concerns: “her decision to reject the tradition of Speakers staying clear of party room meetings where parliamentary tactics are discussed [means] Bishop will now be privy to Coalition attack plans.” Last week, Professor Peter van Onselen complained that “she has gotten worse”: “Bishop throws Labor MPs out of the chamber with gay abandon. … She enters the partisan debate, throwing quips and smirks into the equation in a way that should be beneath the Speaker.” However, the Opposition’s motion was doomed to failure due to the balance of power in the chamber.
The only Indigenous MP in the federal government’s caucus has threatened to cross the floor if Attorney-General George Brandis’s plan to water down anti-racism laws goes too far. He joins representatives of the Indigenous, Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Arab, Armenian and Korean communities, who said the proposals were “morally repugnant”. The government’s move is in response to a Federal Court finding that Andrew Bolt breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). In a series of articles, Bolt questioned whether “fair-skinned Aboriginal people … are sufficiently of Aboriginal race, colour or ethnicity to be identifying as Aboriginal”, and this “offend[ed], insult[ed], intidimidate[d] or humiliate[d]” Aboriginal people. He could not rely on the “free speech” defence in section 18D because his reports were “erroneous”, “mocking and derisive”, and were therefore not published “reasonably and in good faith”. Press reports suggest the government is proposing to amend both sections 18C and 18D. The Australian Human Rights Commission has published an explanation of how the laws currently work, with case examples.