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The real free speech debate we need to have

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 9 May 2017

No other topic of recent debate in Australia sends people hurrying into their corners faster than debate about free speech. This complex and crucial topic has been appropriated by conservative culture warriors to promote unrestrained racism to the degree that it is in danger of losing all greater meaning. Tonight, I want to reclaim some of that space, and maybe even build some bridges, by talking about real threats to speech in Australia in 2017. I want to start with some context.

There are countries around the world where the act of journalism itself can be, in the eyes of the authorities, sufficient justification for imprisonment. There are countries around the world that have state intelligence apparatus so opaque and far-reaching that a journalist may not even know that they have transgressed. The first clue could come at the moment of their arrest, and not sooner. Even if they were able to determine the cause for their arrest, they would not be able to share it, not even with the publication that they work for or with their family or their lawyer. There are countries where federal law enforcement can be deployed to pursue not the perpetrators of gross mismanagement of public funds or corruption but the person who blew the whistle. There are countries where federal law enforcement can monitor a journalist's call records with no oversight and identify a confidential source in order to then monitor them some more. There are countries where a journalist working internationally can publish explosive, important, world-shifting public-interest revelations only to find that their government all but abandons them as they are hunted by the powers implicated in their stories and then pursued in secret. There are countries that record every movement of their citizens and make that information available to law enforcement and a range of agencies without a warrant. There are countries where governments at all levels are massively escalating and consolidating the collection of biometric data—facial-recognition material, DNA, fingerprints and photographs—on all of their citizens, including those never suspected of a crime. There are countries where a single media entity can overwhelmingly dominate the landscape in most cities and freely use that commercial dominance as a political weapon—and, yes, that country is us in 2017: Australia.

The measure of the strength of our public discourse and, in fact, our democracy itself must be how well the powerful can be held to account by even the most marginalised. Instead, debate around speech has centred on which words the wealthiest and the whitest can use in their war of words against people who do not get a right of reply in tabloid newspapers or on talkback radio, and real, substantive discussion about a strong, independent, diverse and free press is long overdue in Australia. Maybe it took those who have bravely stood up for their industrial rights, including those right here in the bureau two storeys up from where we are standing tonight: those journalists from Fairfax Media, who have even had to sit out the budget—this week of all weeks! If it takes industrial action of that measure and that integrity to provoke this discussion, then so be it.

When WikiLeaks, led by Australian publisher and journalist Julian Assange, first published the collateral murder video, it was not hailed as a vital blow for freedom of expression and accountability by the self-proclaimed free speech advocates in conservative parties or the think tanks and the publications—and Reuters journalists were murdered in that war crime, amongst a number of innocent Iraqi civilians. But, instead, Mr Assange and his colleagues were labelled as traitors, and the Australian government distanced themselves from him as rapidly as they could. In the 10 years since the attack in that video took place, the capacity of media organisations and citizen journalists to serve their fourth estate function has been eroded—I would argue, deliberately—by successive Australian federal governments.

Among other things, the internet has relentlessly consumed old business models and has left many organisations struggling for their existence. How do we ensure the survival of public interest journalism and how do we keep as many voices as possible in our media landscape? How do we prevent state interference in acts of journalism? I would have thought these are the free speech debates that we needed to be having.

At the start of this year, as has been so for many years, the most visited news sites in the country were those belonging to the major media groups—,, the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age. This success obviously has not translated to sustainability for some publishers in the internet age. Nevertheless, the same incumbent voices have carried their incumbency into the digital age and they dominate online as they do in older media. The same people are holding the same power; the same people are pushing the same agendas; the same columnists and professional 'opinion-havers' are waging the same boring cultural war.

After Mr Edward Snowden brought the world's attention to covert surveillance by intelligence agencies on an incredible scale—fine-grained, real-time surveillance into every aspect of our lives—every other nation in the Five Eyes alliance had lively public debates, including the US and the UK. They did not always go in the direction that the Australian Greens would have liked, but the debates happened. In the United States, for example, they have a powerful rights-based discourse that dates back to the founding of their republic. That debate simply failed to happen here in Australia. Instead of seizing that opportunity for considered discussion, Australia's then relatively freshly-minted Attorney-General disregarded those revelations entirely and dismissed the whistleblower Ed Snowden as a 'traitor'—that was the word he used.

With each new expansion of powers for law enforcement and spy agencies under the guise of national security—justified by the ever-malleable war on terror—the coalition has retreated further and further from any fidelity to the principle of free expression, confident in the knowledge that the speech that they were most curtailing was criticism directed at them. The Australian Labor Party sadly capitulated to this argument, over and over again, deliberately scrambling to avoid any suggestion that they were weak on national security, no matter how facile the attack on their integrity. After a campaign that should have reached a very different conclusion, Labor signed on and voted for the Liberal government's expensive and ineffective data retention scheme. The signal stayed the same, and the noise exponentially increased.

Mandatory data retention is a perfectly abhorrent mix of intrusion and ineffectiveness. The implementation has been a comedy of errors, a debacle, behind the scenes and in public. In just a few minutes, an individual with basic technological literacy can circumvent that scheme—as helpfully described by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Sky TV. The concessions in the bill, as ineffective and narrow as they were, to protect journalists have been proven ultimately worthless by the AFP's recent announcement that their own officers broke the law—their law—for which they have received no disciplinary action and obviously no charges. They were spying on an Australian journalist without having obtained a warrant. The response yielded a press conference and a shrug of the shoulders, and they moved on.

Once again, the free speech champions in the coalition stayed silent. To the coalition spokespeople who are in here tonight: feel free to interject if any amongst your number raised a finger in protest at that outrage. The government's only response, I understand, freshly enough, was an announcement of more than $300 million in new funding for the Australian Federal Police. It feels somewhat as though Australian journalists and their colleagues overseas, who also put up with extraordinary risks, including to their lives, are caught between the hammer and the anvil—the hammer of an indifferent business model where, even now, we are seeing that the proud mastheads of Fairfax may simply be subject to asset stripping by an offshore conglomerate that has absolutely no interest in the role of public interest journalism; and, on the other hand, the deprivations of law enforcement and an indifferent government that is seeking merely to manage the message and to manage it out of existence, if necessary. Who would be a journalist in 2017?

On behalf of the Australian Greens, I want to convey my respect to the Fairfax staff who have taken unprotected industrial action this week and last week not just in defence of their own employment—because, clearly, it is their employment that is at stake—but also in defence of all of us. We may not like what they write about us down here on the floor of the Senate, but that is just too bad. We may want to see them better supported and we may want to see more diverse voices in the media landscape but, in the here and now, they are the ones who are on the frontline, and we support them. We hope that they can reach some kind of conclusion with management, who are taking home multimillion dollar pay cheques to asset strip this proud entity in the Australian media landscape.

At the same time as this is occurring, public broadcasting is under unprecedented threat. I have not yet been into the budget papers in detail to see whether community broadcasters got a break or whether they will shortly be going to the wall as well. But from ABC to SBS to community broadcasters to the old commercial broadcasters and print businesses, independent, free, fair, public interest journalism is under attack from all sides. There are things that we can do about it, and the Australian Greens are up for that debate. We will work with anybody in this chamber on providing support, if it is appropriate, for new business models to hold us in here to account because, ultimately, that is what keeps all of us and this country in good shape.

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