THE TERM ‘sedition’ should be removed from the federal statute book, and laws on offences urging force or violence against the government or community groups should be redrafted, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) argued this week in a new discussion paper on federal sedition laws.
Citing the high value Australians place on free speech and “robust” political debate, ALRC president Professor David Weisbrot said his organisation’s proposals aimed to ensure that there was a well-defined line between freedom of expression — even when exercised in a confronting or unpopular manner — and what could be controlled by criminal law.
“There is no reason these offences, which properly target the urging of force or violence, cannot be framed in such a way to avoid capturing dissenting views and opinions or stifling the work of journalists, cartoonists, artists and film makers, either directly or through the ‘chilling effect’ of self-censorship,” he said.
The Attorney-General had asked the ALRC to consider in the paper whether Australia’s sedition laws, which were updated in the Commonwealth’s Anti-Terrorism Act of 2005, effectively address the problem of individuals intentionally urging others to use force or violence, and whether ‘sedition’ is the appropriate term to describe such an offence.
“Given its history, the term ‘sedition’ is much too closely associated in the public mind with punishment of those who criticise the established order,” said Weisbrot.
Section 80.2 of the updated Criminal Code shift the focus away from criticism of the state and towards conduct specifically urging others to use force or violence to overthrow the Constitution, interfere in free elections, or to target particular groups within the community. “This is really just another form of the longstanding offence of incitement to violence. Continued use of the term ‘sedition’ only confuses the issues,” said Weisbrot.
The ALRC offered 25 proposals for reform. They included requiring that the Crown must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person intentionally urged others to use violence, and also that a jury must take into account the context of the speech or conduct, such as whether it was part of an artistic performance, or in a news report or commentary about a matter of public interest.
The Commission also called for amendments to offences related to ‘assisting’ an enemy at war with Australia or engaged in armed hostilities against the ADF. They want to clarify that this refers to material assistance - such as arms, funds, personnel or strategic information - rather than criticism of government policy.
Other key proposals were repealing outdated provisions in the Crimes Act concerning ‘unlawful associations’, which have been largely superseded by more recent laws on terrorist organisations, and ruling out the need to introduce a UK-style offence of ‘glorification of terrorism’. The ALRC is seeking community feedback on the proposals in the Discussion Paper before a final report is completed.