19 December 2009

Censorship: it's already happening under Kevin Rudd

Actions that the government has already taken to suppress politically unfavourable views raise doubts about Kevin Rudd's motives for implementing mandatory ISP-level filtering. It is unfortunate that these outrageous violations of freedom of speech have received little attention in the media.

When an MP instructed his supporters to contact him to obtain copies of a speech because new regulations issued by the Department of Finance and Deregulation prevented him from distributing material critical of the government, I thought it was only a joke. Unfortunately, it wasn't—so much for deregulation. Luke Simpkins, Federal Member for the Western Australian seat of Cowan, raised this issue in a speech given under Parliamentary privilege on 27 October 2009:

Mr SIMPKINS (Cowan) (8:49 PM) —It is a great honour to be able to stand in this parliament as an elected representative of the people of Cowan. It is great to be able to stand here and speak with the protection of parliamentary privilege to ensure that I am not restricted in saying what needs to be said. I can talk, and have done so, about the things that matter to my constituents without my right to freedom of speech being restricted. This is a cornerstone of the great democratic tradition. That being said, I do not use parliamentary privilege to tell lies; I use it to tell the truth. If we did not have parliamentary privilege then our ability to tell the truth and convey information would effectively be restricted. The other great advantage of parliamentary privilege is that we cannot be told what we can and cannot say. If we were, that would be censorship and the argument would very clearly be that such censorship would exist to deny us the ability to communicate alternative viewpoints for the benefit of our nation or to deny us the opportunity to be critical of the government in a constructive manner.

Censorship does not exist in the parliament, but in conveying information about what happens here censorship does apply. When I convey information to my constituents, what I need to tell them is censored. The government’s appointed censors in the Department of Finance and Deregulation can tell me that I cannot print certain statements. They tell us that freedom of speech is not allowed. I cannot send my constituents copies of Hansard, the official recording of what is said in this place, if that Hansard record states or implies any words that are critical of the Labor government. The text of this speech, once in Hansard, would be predominantly blacked out by a thick black marker—a marker that serves to eliminate the ability of anyone to engage constructively in a critical debate about government policies and actions.

If I were to say that the Prime Minister was very good at finalising the delivery of quality Howard government projects and programs, and taking credit for them, but hopeless in terms of his own policy performance, that would be censored. I cannot report that in writing. If I were to say that the Deputy Prime Minister’s bungled, over-budget, behind schedule, hopelessly mismanaged—and now under investigation by the Auditor-General—memorial school halls debacle was a fiasco, that would be censored as well. If I were to say that the Minister for Health and Ageing has failed to fix public hospitals by the promised mid-2009 deadline then that would be censored.

If I were to talk about the failure by serial bungler the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to achieve the original broadband tender at over $4 billion—he is now risking $43 billion of funds borrowed from taxpayers on a broadband plan that has no business plan, which is a very expensive plan without a plan to make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent properly—that would be censored. If I were to say that the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government claimed responsibility for infrastructure projects most of which were initiated by, and many of which were completed by, the previous coalition government then that would be censored. In fact, I do not think that you can even report anything about unauthorised boats arriving in Australian waters, as the mere mention of such an event would be critical of the government and that would be censored.

All these comments would be blacked out. Criticism of the Labor government is not allowed in our letters and newsletters. Bringing the people’s attention to mistakes of the government is no longer allowed in this country. The outlawing of legitimate criticism is occurring now in the printed format by the design of the Labor government, but who knows what the future holds.

I wonder what will be next. Perhaps we will have a list of unparliamentary words expanded so that we can no longer say—in reference to ministers, the Labor Party, State Labor governments, former members of the Labor Party, unions or any other association to do with the Labor Party—words such as ‘bad’, ‘mismanagement’, ‘bungled’, ‘incompetent’, ‘hasty’, ‘knee-jerk’, ‘putting Australia at risk’, or even ‘debt’ or ‘deficit’ et cetera . It is very hard to accurately describe the government without those words.

Perhaps the next step will be that Hansard can be edited to take out any criticisms of the Labor government. Perhaps what is being planned is that standing orders can be modified so that questions or criticisms of the Labor government will, in the future, result in exclusion from the chamber. At least then the Labor government would be able to say that there has not been a bad word said about them in parliament.

This censorship has resulted in the Labor government censors stopping criticism of the government by the opposition in letters or newsletters. The censors are not elected, just directed by the Labor government. These restrictions do not apply to the Prime Minister and ministers in the Labor government, who can continue to use ministerial budgets to criticise the opposition—double standards of the worst kind. This is, without doubt, censorship and an attack on the basic principle of democracy—freedom of speech.

Recently, Dr Clive Spash, a scientist at the CSIRO, was prevented from publishing a paper critical of the Rudd Labor government's emissions trading scheme (ETS). The political interference in research conducted at the CSIRO was raised in Parliament by Eric Abetz, Senator for Tasmania, on 25 November 2009:

It is often in matters of contention and sharp debate that the knowledge and expertise of the scientific community is most valuable. This is why it is so important to protect the right of scientists to speak out about their research and discoveries.’

Going back to that topic of—what was it?—matters of contention, guess what? We have a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme being considered by the parliament as we speak—somewhat contentious—and guess what Dr Spash was writing about? The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. So by the very test that Senator Carr puts down, he nevertheless puts the censor’s pen through and says, ‘No, we don’t want to hear in any unfettered way what Dr Spash might have to offer not only the government but also the Australian people to help inform them in their debate.’ We do not get the full and detailed treasury modelling on matters to do with the government’s legislation in recent times; we do not get the whole story out of this government.

When you have an institution as proud as the CSIRO being muzzled in this way in the face of a minister who claims that he has been an advocate his whole public life for ‘vigorous and transparent public debate unfettered by political interference’, when you have a minister who says that but then does the exact opposite, you know why he is a cabinet minister in the Rudd government. He fits the mould. That is what the Labor cabinet ministers do: they say one thing, promise one thing and then do another.

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