Monday, June 05, 2006

Sedition in Australia III

One of the ironies of the Selwyn sedition prosecution is that it is happening at a time when things are moving in the opposite direction across the Tasman. Last year, the Australian Federal Government rushed through draconian sedition provisions as part of its knee-jerk anti-terrorism legislation. Shortly afterwards, they announced that the Australian Law Reform Commission would be reviewing the new provisions. That review has just released its initial recommendations [large], which include significant changes to the law. Among them:

  • removing the term "sedition" from federal law and replacing it with "offences against political liberty and public order";
  • amending all offences criminalising urging "force or violence" (e.g. s80.2 (1) criminalising urging the overthrow by force or violence of the federal government, or 80.2 (3) criminalising urging the violent interference with elections) to make it clear that such urging must be intentional;
  • completely repealing provisions barring urging anyone to "assist the enemy" (this being seen as dangerously overbroad and a fundamental restriction on freedom of speech). Parallel provisions in the law of treason would be tightened to ensure that such assistance must be material rather than merely rhetorical, and must actually aid said enemy against Australia (thus making it clear that "mere rhetoric or expressions of dissent" are not treason);
  • repealing the existing "good faith" defence and replacing it with stronger provisions protecting academic, artistic, scientific, political or journalistic speech; and
  • repealing the "category D" extended geographical jurisdiction for treason (to correct the ridiculous assertion that people with no connection to Australia whatsoever and who cannot be argued to owe it any loyalty at all can commit treason against it)

If enacted, these proposed amendments would significantly tighten the law and remove some of its most worrying features. At the same time, they would not go all the way. Notably, the provisions relating to urging force or violence would still be broader than traditional incitement, as they would not require the urger to have any specific offence in mind. But they would still be an improvement on the current situation, which would allow opinion columnists or cartoonists to be convicted of "aiding the enemy" for disagreeing with government policy, or of "urging the overthrow of the government" in jest.

The ALRC's full discussion paper is here.