Time for constitutional backstop for press freedom

23 Jul 2020

Posted July 29, 2019

Federal Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie has introduced a Private Members' Bill to enshrine the right of freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, within the Australian Constitution.

The Constitution Alteration (Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press) Bill 2019 was introduced by Rebekha today after mirror legislation was introduced earlier in the month by Centre Alliance Senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff.

“Centre Alliance is of the opinion that the time has come for our nation to bring in a constitutional backstop to protect our free press and the right of all Australians to speak freely,” Rebekha said.

“When the news broke last month that the Australian Federal Police had raided the home of a News Corp journalist and then ABC, it’s fair to say it was like a blast of arctic air for Australia’s fourth estate.

“It was also a wake-up call for every Australian. In an era when public trust in politicians is at an all-time low, this very public act of enforcement was a direct assault on public-interest journalism.”

The proposed amendment will insert a new Chapter and section in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900.

The new section will provide that the Commonwealth, State or Territory must not limit the freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and other media. However, a law of the Commonwealth, State or Territory may limit the freedom if that limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open, free and democratic society.

What is "reasonable and justifiable" will be a matter for the Commonwealth, State and Territory legislatures, but will be subject to potential constitutional review by the High Court of Australia.

“Our Federation forefathers didn’t enshrine freedom of speech and a free press in our constitution because they believed common sense would prevail,” Rebekha said.

“Our highest court has found that an implied freedom of communication exists under the Constitution in relation to political and government matters but the extent of that freedom is limited and our laws protecting sources are much weaker than they are in other comparable democracies.

“Our world has changed and as our Government continues to bring in metadata and anti-terrorism laws in the name of national security we need to ensure that we rely on more than a government’s common sense to protect the civil liberties that make us a modern democracy.”

If the legislation is taken up by the Government, any constitutional amendment requires a referendum.

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