The voice of Australia- Do we have freedom of speech?

The voice of Australia- Do we have freedom of speech?

In Australia we treasure the freedom to tell it as it is. It is an aspect of our tradition, and now embedded in our culture: we like our facts raw so we can form our own opinions, and speak up when things aren’t right.

This is called Freedom and to an extent we have this right in Australia. Conversely Australia does not have a Bill of Rights. This means that our freedom of speech is not protected.

Yes, compared to corrupt states like Fiji and Zimbabwe, we blessed with free expression and use of media. We take it for granted. But be warned, we cannot be complacent, our freedoms are not as healthy as they should be. The Australian Constitution does not have any express provision relating to freedom of speech. There is no list of personal rights or freedoms which may be enforced in the courts.

On 10 December 2008 the Rudd government announced a nationwide Consultation to examine the protection and promotion of human rights and responsibilities in Australia.

On 8 October 2009 the Commonwealth Attorney-General released the Committee’s highly anticipated report. After widespread public concern, the Committee found overwhelming community support for a Human Rights Act. The Australian government said it would respond to the report by the end of 2009…..That was two years ago.

Over the past year alone there has been an unprecedented levels of concealment from government, a pervading culture of secrecy and resistance to, and fear of, allowing people to know the truth about the Australian government.

The Australian government is very unusual compared to other Western democracies as we do not protect free speech as they do in the United States, in European Union , Canada and New Zealand. This means there’s no guaranteed right of free speech. Rather, we have only those freedoms that our politicians allow us to have. They can take them away, and we have no constitutional right to stop them.

As Australian, we have the opportunity to speak freely. We need to criticise, debate and challenge information we receive from society and government openly. Information is a tool which allows us to freely make up our own minds. Our main source of information is the media, it helps us decide whether politicians should be re-elected and speaks out for injustice, anger and worry on our behalf.

Depending on how we perceive freedom of speech is the real question.

Individually we have access to speak freely and openly, the concern is how we are fed the information and what we are “conditioned” to perceive as truth.  In recent times, the freedom of the press has been increasingly decrepit and damaged, interfering with our basic right to information.

The consistent creep towards secrecy in Australia has gone unnoticed, leaving many Australian’s out of the loop.

Amnesty International stated:

“In recent times we have seen how human rights are vulnerable to being undermined by government policies, such as mandatory detention of asylum seekers and the sedition laws passed as part of our anti-terror legislation. There is also the potential for free speech on the internet – or in any other forum – to be censored without legal protection of our right to free speech. We are left relying on the Government to protect our basic human rights, and we have no legal avenue to challenge them if they are abused. While it is marginalised communities whose human rights are most at risk of being violated, human rights of all people are in truth always at risk of being violated if not protected.”

Even though Australia has signed all five international treaties that make up the International Bill of Human Rights, none of these treaties are legally binding in Australia.

Australia is the only Liberal democracy in the world without an overarching human rights protection

I wonder why the Government never ‘feeds’ us this kind of  information before?

As citizens we have considered Australia among the best, just as we are told. Incongruously the latest worldwide press freedom index, compiled by the independent organisation Reporters Without Borders, ranks Australia 35th equal with Bulgaria and behind nations such as Bolivia (16th) and South Korea (31st).

How can this be possible? As citizens of Australia, we have let successive governments dictate to us for generations and impose their discriminatory polices like the White Australia Policy, Conscription, and imprisoning asylum seeker in detention centres.

It doesn’t just stop there. If Australia did have freedom of speech we would be able to obtain statistics from hospitals and schools about their standards of care and education; government-commissioned reports about the economy, environment and industry and information regarding court hearings and criminal law.

Under the FOI Act, individuals, journalists and companies can apply for copies of documents in the hands of government departments, providing information on statistics of government programs, Expense details of Ministers, tax, use of government funding etc.

In this regards, we do have freedom and are entitled to this information. But it will come at a price; freedom is not free and come at a sturdy price to obtain such documents.

Freedom of Information has become an oxymoron.

For some reason the Australian Government works on the belief that all information is a secret and hidden from the public, unless there is good reason for it to be shared. It is meant to be the other way around. It SHOULD be  ethically based, everything SHOULD be available and shared, unless there is a sound reason why not. This is a exceedingly successful structure in several countries such as Sweden, no side effects.

There are numerous cases when our freedom of speech in Australia has been questioned.

In 2005, The Australian published details from an internal Customs report that revealed lax security and drug-smuggling rings at a number of airports, leaving the country vulnerable to terrorism. The report had been ignored by internal officials for two years before it eventually leaked to the newspaper.

Less than a week after the reports in The Australian, Federal Cabinet met to discuss it and later announced a $200 million airport security upgrade. It seems unlikely this would have gone ahead if the Government hadn’t been embarrassed by the report and shamed for putting the Australian public at risk for so long.

The government should have been condemned for holding back  vital information which was potentially life threatening, instead, the Whistleblower, Allan Kessing was condemned, scrutinized and accused. Kessing was charged, convicted and sentenced to nine months’ jail, later suspended when he put up the money for a good-behaviour bond. He lost his job and is now fighting an appeal, which has cost him his savings

Allan Kessing freely spoke out about an issue with involved humanity, his conscious and desperation lead to the report leaks with the intetntion of protecting the public. It worked out at a price.

This example also precedents, that those who speak out against corruption in the government will face similar prosecution. Is it worth defamation, unemployment, financial instability and imprisonment?

Earlier In 2004, two journalists from the Victoria’s Herald Sun published a story about a surreptitious plan by the Federal Government to deny pension entitlements to war veterans- Their report, was confirmed, 100% the truth.

Public servant, Desmoned Kelly was charged over leaking to the Herald. The journalist were called to give evidence in the case and honorably refused to leak their source. Both Journalist were charged and convicted with contempt.

Despite the best interest of the country, By choosing to speak freely, they were charged, fined $7000 each and ‘rewarded’ a criminal record. These example set the case and value for free speech in Australia, it is despicable.

One of five fundamental freedoms of the Australian Government ‘states’

“Australians are free, within the bounds of the law, to say or write what we think privately or publicly, about the government, or about any topic. We do not censor the media and may criticise the government without fear of arrest. Free speech comes from facts, not rumours, and the intention must be constructive, not to do harm. There are laws to protect a person’s good name and integrity against false information. There are laws against saying or writing things to incite hatred against others because of their culture, ethnicity or background. Freedom of speech is not an excuse to harm others.”

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Free speech should not be monitored by the government. It is a evitable human right. Despite some positive progress in the areas of defamation and confidentiality, the government has gained greater hold over the voice of Australia in recent times.

We the Australian people need to take greater control over our rights. We have allowed governments dictate to us for generations and impose onto us their discriminatory polices.

So what is the problem? We naivety trust the government’s best intentions, ultimately they influence the way we think. Many of the laws and restrictions imposed on the public right to knowledge may not look deceitful on their own. But together they form a very worrying situation for Australia’s free expression. This can be seen in the principles of open justice and broad suppressions orders used by courts to restrict public access, the risks faced by journalists and whistleblowers in their actions of public interest, sedition laws on freedom of expression in media and suppressions of informational laws by the government.

We live in a contradicting society where information comes at a price, either you pay the government to get it, or you pay for leaking concealed information. Literally, our freedom’ of speech is not free. We are left relying on the Government to protect our basic human rights, and we have no legal avenue to challenge them if they are abused – It is time to speak out.