Further threats to free speech in Victoria

The Report from a recent Victorian Parliamentary inquiry contains further  threats to freedom of speech and freedom of religion in Victoria.

The Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Protections looked at the effectiveness of existing anti-vilification laws including the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (VIC).  Amongst its 36 recommendations the Committee recommends that the Victorian Government (emphasis added):

  • lower the civil incitement test from ‘conduct that incites’ to ‘conduct that is likely to incite’, a significant lowering of the bar for complaints (Recommendation 8)
  • introduce a new civil harm-based provision to assess harm from the perspective of the target group. (Recommendation 9) to make unlawful conduct that ‘a reasonable person would consider hateful, seriously contemptuous, or reviling or seriously ridiculing of a person or a class of persons’ (Recommendation 10)
  • expand the criminal offences from covering the incitement of hatred or physical harm to actions “likely to incite hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons” (Recommendation 20)
  • broaden the protected attributes to include gender and/or sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression, sex characteristics and/or intersex status (Recommendation 1)

In addition, the Report proposes sweeping new powers for the VEOHRC and that the Government “fund organisations such as Victorian Legal Aid and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service to engage in strategic litigation on vilification matters to develop practice in this area” (Recommendation 28).  No equivalent funding is proposed to assist in the defence of such litigation.

The words of the then Attorney-General in introducing the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020 are worth remembering at this point –

… This ensures that conduct generally directed—such as sermons expressing a general statement of belief—is not captured. However, such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections

Victoria, Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly (PROOF), 26 November 2020, 21 (Jill Hennessy, Attorney-General).

No legislation has been introduced in response to the Report’s recommendations at this stage, although it does seem only a matter of time before such legislation is introduced.  We will be working with other groups in Victoria to seek to mitigate some of the more extreme aspects of the Report’s proposals.