Opening statement to Commonwealth Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012

With Simon Breheny and Tim Wilson

We thank the committee for inviting us to give evidence this afternoon. The exposure draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 is an attack on our fundamental freedoms. The draft bill is not simply a consolidation of existing Commonwealth acts, as the government has claimed; it is a radical overhaul of anti-discrimination law. There are many problems with the draft bill. The most concerning aspect of the draft bill is the significant threat it poses to freedom of speech. The definition of discrimination has been expanded to include conduct that offends or insults. Given this new definition of discrimination, the inclusion of political opinion as a ground on which a claim can be made is absurd and dangerous. Under the draft bill, you could be taken to court for saying something that offended someone because of a political opinion they hold.

The freedom to express political opinions in all areas of public life, even those that offend and insult others, is central to the functioning of our system of government, as the High Court has found. By undermining the freedom of speech, the draft poses a grave threat to the health of Australian democracy. It is wrong to say that the draft bill could be amended to a point where it is acceptable. Simply removing the words ‘offend’ and ‘insult’ from the new definition of discrimination will not save the draft bill. The real problem is the whole project itself. The draft bill is not about antidiscrimination; instead, the consolidation project has resulted in a draft bill that undermines liberty and places the state at the centre of our interpersonal relationships. Rather than making the law clearer and simpler, the draft bill adds significant complexities to this area of law.

The draft bill also reverses the burden of proof for claims of discrimination. This is completely unacceptable. The person bringing a legal claim should always bear the burden of proving their case. This principle—the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty—is the centrepiece of a just legal system. Reversing the burden of proof creates an unjust system.

The draft bill will erode civil society by encouraging reliance on apparatus of the state for the resolution of private disputes. It threatens to lead Australia towards a US-style culture of litigation. The constant erosion of our freedoms must end. This draft bill is a disturbing example of the ever-increasing power of the state. It shows that it is now time to swing the pendulum back towards liberty rather than away from it and to take back control of our own lives. The draft bill is a threat to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. The Institute of Public Affairs calls on the committee to recommend the outright rejection of this dangerous draft bill.