MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE - Australian Society


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:57): Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Bernardi, congratulations on initiating this debate on freedoms generally and on what you say are increasing attacks on Australia's traditional freedoms. I've had the good fortune in my life, as a member of this parliament, to visit many places in the world. I attend, as a regular member, the Inter-Parliamentary Union that meets around the world somewhere every six months. I always come home absolutely amazed that, in Australia, we have a confected outrage of abuse of the human rights of Australians and abuse of our freedoms and a confected victimisation that a few people in this country continue to support. I think about other countries I've been to, and I'm so grateful that I am an Australian living in a country which is as free as any civilised nation can be.

The old freedoms—freedom from want, freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of speech—are things we cherish in Australia. Sometimes we mess up on them—and I'll mention a few of those—but, by and large, we are a country that should cherish and celebrate the freedoms we have as a nation. At the Inter-Parliamentary Union, there are some countries—who claim to be parliaments—who will not allow this international gathering of parliamentarians to even discuss some issues, let alone pass any resolutions on them. There are some fellow parliamentarians who attend this who I know execute people who have committed crimes which, if committed in Australia, perhaps wouldn't even draw a mandatory jail sentence. One of the reasons I like going to the Inter-Parliamentary Union is that I look around and say, 'How lucky am I to be an Australian and living in this country of absolute freedom.' There are some abuses on the way, but they don't overcome the reputation that Australia has, rightly, as a country that cherishes, values and promotes the freedoms we have.

But, on a perhaps more negative note, I was very disappointed today that Senator O'Sullivan was pilloried by other senators in this chamber, accused of doing a number of things, and sought leave to defend himself, but the leave, which is required in this chamber, was denied by the Leader of the Australian Labor Party in the Senate. That is un-Australian, and it is an abuse of freedom, because in Australia, as in all democratic and free countries, the basic tenet is that when you are accused you have the right to a defence, you have the right to explain your action, and you have the right to show that you are not guilty as charged. But that was denied this day in this parliament, in a parliament that is supposed to be protecting our freedom to speak.

Some of our universities—I say with some regret: the university that I always support, James Cook University, and other universities in this country—have denied various people access to their campuses for meetings because they disagreed with what that person might be going to say. I too would perhaps have disagreed with what that person was going to say, but, as the old adage goes, I disagree entirely with what that person says and stands for, but I defend to death the right of that person to express their views. So I'm disappointed that the universities, which are supposed to be the bastions of freedom around the country, are only selective in the freedoms they allow with speakers on topics which those in charge of the universities don't believe are appropriate for discussing on their campuses.

I am delighted, having just returned from being an observer on behalf of Australia at the Fiji elections, to see how freedom in that British colony is continuing to operate. They have had some rocky patches along the way in the last couple of decades, but their election system, which is the basis of all freedoms in a democratic country, was, in my view, absolutely brilliant—without peer, I might also say—and executed excruciatingly honestly and fairly. Considering the freedom of elections and the freedom of democracy in Fiji and the way it was organised, I lamented that unfortunately in Australia these days we don't have quite the same precision in the conduct of our elections. For example, in the electorate of Herbert, which was won by the Labor Party by 37 votes, there were 200 cases of double voting, which could have changed the government of Australia. That could never happen in Fiji because in Fiji, once you've voted, you put your finger in an inkwell of indelible ink, and for the next month everybody knows you have voted. If you turn up at a polling booth to vote again, as often happens in Australia, I'm aware, you won't be allowed in. So there is a lot we could learn from the Fijians about how to conduct an election that does in fact guarantee our freedoms.

Whilst talking about freedom, can I just give a shout-out to those who protect the freedoms we so enjoy in Australia. Our police forces are sometimes under criticism and pressure for not following the rules, but they fight against people who never follow the rules, and they do a wonderful job. I have the greatest admiration for the police forces, our law enforcement agencies around the country and our intelligence services.

I also want to do a shout-out for our Defence Force. I come from a garrison city, the city of Townsville, which is the home of Australia's largest Army base, a significant Air Force base and some naval elements as well. Our troops, our soldiers, our service men and women, are the ones who ultimately defend the freedoms we accept as the norm in our country. Very often they are recognised, but too often they are not. They do a wonderful job in protecting Australia, and that means protecting what Australia is all about—protecting the freedoms that we enjoy. A strong Defence Force that is motivated to defend the country, the culture and the freedoms that Australians have and expect to continue to have is just a wonderful exercise. They do a wonderful job, and, as often as I can, I will offer praise, congratulations and thanks to the serving members of our Army, Navy and Air Force who protect Australia in so many ways and do it so professionally.

Senator Bernardi, in sponsoring this matter of public importance, has concerns about increasing attacks on Australia's traditional freedoms. He mentioned those in his speech, and my colleague Senator O'Sullivan also explicitly raised a number of these issues where there are attacks from within, almost—from people with political ideologies—on the freedoms that we've always enjoyed in this country. In that regard, I support the approach of Senator Bernardi and Senator O'Sullivan in lamenting those attacks by some within Australia—as I say, usually of a political bent—on some of the freedoms which we class as traditional, relevant, important and part of Australia. Mr Acting Deputy President, we are in the lucky country because of the freedoms we enjoy. Long may that continue.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Macdonald. I do believe I'm Madam President. Senator Collins.

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