An Australian ‘First Amendment’ - Centre Alliance to push for Constitutional protection for freedom of the press and freedom of speech

6 June 2019

Centre Alliance Senators Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff will introduce legislation into the Senate to propose an amendment to the Australian Constitution to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press along similar lines to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“The Australian Federal Police raids on journalists and media organisations provide a salutary warning that freedom of the press - a pillar of our democracy - cannot be taken for granted, and indeed is under significant threat”, Senator Patrick said. 

“A constitutional amendment along these lines would put a brake on any future government efforts to suppress the freedom of the press or freedom of expression for all Australians.  It would also set a clear benchmark against which current laws can be judged.” 

Senator Griff noted that while the High Court has ruled in various decisions that an implied freedom of communication exists under the Constitution in relation to political and government matters, the extent of that freedom was highly uncertain and easily limited.

“Press freedom is a fragile thing and once lost is unlikely to be regained, especially when it is curtailed in the name of national security,” Senator Griff said. 

“Australian democracy needs a constitutional backstop to protect our free press and the right of all Australians to speak freely,” he said. 

“The drafters of the Australian Constitution adapted many elements of the US Constitution.  It is very clear now that we need our own ‘First Amendment’.” 

The First Amendment to the US Constitution provides that the Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Section 116 of the Australian Constitution protects freedom of religion by providing that the Commonwealth Parliament “shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

“Freedom of religion is enshrined in our Constitution, but freedom of speech and a free press are not subject to explicit protection; this is a deep-seated flaw in the foundations of Australia’s democracy”, Senator Patrick said. 

“Senator Griff and I will introduce a Bill to provide for an alteration to the Constitution specifically to protect freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.  That Bill can be referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee for a wide-ranging inquiry including submissions and evidence from all interested organisations and individuals,” he said. 

“Those who believe, as we do, that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are under threat and need constitutional protection can make their case.  Those who are relaxed about the erosion of press freedom will presumably argue to the contrary.  One way or another, this is a debate that must be had.”

“Critically a Bill to amend the Constitution to explicitly protect freedom of the press and freedom of speech will require the Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition to take a clear stand on whether they will allow these matters to be determined by the Australian people at a national referendum.

“These are indeed issues that go to the heart of our democracy and should be put to the people in the life of the new Parliament.”

The Bill is a preliminary requirement for a Constitutional referendum to occur.

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