Freedom of Speech

+ Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney
20 Jan 2013

Two of the cherished foundations of the Australian way of life are freedom of speech and the presumption of innocence.  Changes are proposed which would undermine these.

On November 20, the Attorney General published a draft of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012, which sets out to unify and consolidate five existing anti-discrimination acts.  The draft goes much further.

For many, all discrimination is now considered wrong and some are disconcerted when it is pointed out that governments, societies and individuals regularly discriminate.  Each person chooses her friends and decides who to avoid.  We discriminate between friends and foes, those we like and dislike.

Society discriminates between criminals and the law-abiding and imprisons some criminals.  Society discriminates by choosing only the best students to study medicine or law and the best athletes to represent Australia.  Governments choose which immigrants they will accept and those they expel.  In other words discrimination is a regular and necessary part of daily living.

Obviously not all discrimination is right.  Some actions and statements are wrong and unjust.  The question is how many of these should be illegal.

Until 60 or 70 years ago job vacancy lists would sometimes explain that Catholics and Jews need not apply.  Until 50 years ago Aboriginal Australians could not vote.  All of this is wrong and legislation to prevent such injustice is appropriate.  However Dr. Daniel Mannix, once archbishop of Melbourne, used to explain that every person has a right to be foolish if he thinks it wise.  We all have a right to unreasonable opinions, but no right to incite hatred, and no right to get our facts wrong.

The proposed legislation extends the meaning of discrimination to include "unfavourable treatment", "offending", and "insulting", perhaps even for some political opinions expressed in the work place.  All this is a step too far.  Most Australians want to reject some politicians, even speak insultingly about them.  Any law to prohibit this would be unworkable.

Much more dangerous is the proposal to reverse the onus of proof so the person accused of discrimination has to prove his innocence.  The principle that "a person is innocent until proved guilty" goes back to the 1790s.  Complainants should have to make out their case and continue to pay costs if their case fails.

To reverse the onus of proof, even when it is called "shifting", is dangerous and one step towards totalitarianism.

All long journeys start with a few steps.