The Government is pleased the Legislative Council has voted against referral of the Anti- Discrimination Amendment Bill 2016, which contains important protections for free speech, to a committee inquiry.
Due to our heavy legislative agenda and given the proximity to the end of the parliamentary year, the Government does not intend to bring the bill on for debate until next year. This will allow further time for community debate and stakeholder feedback to MLCs on this important issue. We will of course consider any amendments which would strengthen the bill and address the concerns raised by stakeholders around freedom of speech and the streamlining of the complaints process.
Contributions from members today acknowledged that the Act in its current form does have the potential to unnecessarily limit free speech in Tasmania and/or create uncertainty. As Equal Opportunity Tasmania says, “in the interests of protecting freedom of speech from unjustified restriction, there are exceptions to this part of the law” (Section 17(1) of the Act).
Currently, these exceptions afford protections to academics, artists, scientists and researchers – including those who put their name to a newspaper ad on the weekend supporting the Act as it currently stands. It is an anomaly in the Act that people undertaking respectful religious discussion or debate in good faith are not deemed worthy of the same right to free speech.
I welcome the acknowledgement from Civil Liberties Australia in a letter to Legislative Councillors that “there is a potential silencing effect where people may fear being taken to the Anti‐Discrimination Commission and therefore don’t enter a debate.” This is exactly the problem the Government and members of the community have identified. Until the Act is amended the silencing effect will continue – many ordinary Tasmanians will not run the risk of sharing a reasonable religious perspective when it is so unclear as to what perspectives may be considered a breach of the Act.
It is noteworthy that Australian Human Rights Commissioner has today supported reform to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act to set a higher threshold for acceptance of complaints.
The Government has proposed sensible amendments in the Bill to ensure a higher bar is set for the acceptance of complaints and we now look forward to the debate continuing in the Legislative Council in the New Year.