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MPI - Matter of public importance

This is an excerpt from a parliamentary speech delivered 7 September 2006 by Senator Mitch Fifield. He was speaking about Mr Bruce Smith (1851-1937), a committed libertarian. We have extracted the section in which Senator Fifield criticises Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (2001).

… What disturbs me even more is the restriction of freedom of speech in Victoria as a result of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. No-one should ever condone racial vilification. It is completely unacceptable in Australian society to vilify anyone on the basis of their racial background. It was a desire to protect members of our community that prompted the bill. Anti-Semitism was particularly in the minds of the proponents and the authors of the bill, but the act has gone too far. It limits freedom of religious expression, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience in a way that is totally unacceptable in a liberal, pluralistic democracy. Religious vilification should be condemned, but the difficulties of legislating against religious vilification have become evident.

Two Christian pastors have been found guilty by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal of making fun of Muslim beliefs and practices. The crime was to quote the Koran and evoke laughter from the audience. No-one suggested that the pastors were quoting the Koran incorrectly, just that the response to quoting passages from the Koran was laughter. In Victoria today, laughter amounts to religious vilification. The core business of clerics is to advocate why they believe—to advocate their world view and why their truth is the right one. Of necessity, this means saying why you believe that another’s belief system is flawed. The battle of ideas, the battle of world views and the battle of beliefs is at the heart of what makes us a pluralistic society. Pluralism is not the housing of beliefs in silos; it is the interaction of those ideas and the tolerance of those ideas. But tolerance does not mean a denial of contestability. All ideas in our society should be contestable.

But there is worse to come. A convicted Wiccan paedophile serving time in jail has used the religious vilification provisions of the legislation to pursue the Salvation Army for allegedly vilifying his Wiccan religious beliefs. The paedophile voluntarily enrolled in an alpha course—a church-run course to explain Christianity. The crime? Those conducting the course did not speak well of witches, astrologers and occultists. TheWiccan was unsuccessful in his action, but the fact that this matter could even go to a directions hearing means that the laws are fundamentally flawed. I again turn to Bob Carr for assistance. He had this to say about such laws:

As they are used in practice, religious vilification laws can undermine the very freedom they seek to protect—freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

This is yet another example of meddling legislation. The solution to the articulation of poor ideas, stupid ideas, offensive ideas, is not to gag those articulating them. The solution is to rebut them with good ideas— the sort of legitimate exchange of ideas that people like Bruce Smith spent their lives engaging in. I fear that I am giving Bob Carr too much credit, but I will give him the final word on this particular piece of legislation. He said, ‘Leave these matters to the commonsense of the Australian people.’

I congratulate the state Liberal leader, Ted Baillieu, and the shadow Attorney-General, Andrew Macintosh, for their stands on these issues of freedom. The Victorian opposition is committed to repealing the bill of rights and to reviewing the religious vilification provisions of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Bruce Smith would be proud. We need to be vigilant and resolute and reject being told how to live our lives. It is always time to stand up for individual freedoms, liberty and equal opportunity. It is time to stand against these new nanny states. It is time to revive the spirit of Bruce Smith.


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