My submission to Labor government's Communications Legislation Amendment (Combating Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023 (Cth).
The proposed Combating Misinformation and Disinformation Bill must be withdrawn. I accept that we don’t want misinformation and lies being spread, but the alternative is worse. So it has always been. Yes, we don’t “want” lies propagated, it can be hurtful and misleading. But freedom of speech ensures that the truth will also be out there.
1. Worse than a plethora of lies, is the absence of truth. Suppressing freedom of speech not only suppresses lies but also truth.
2. How is truth also suppressed? Such suppressive power as in this bill allows abuse by powerful interests by becoming the arbiter of truth and lies - it is a powerful position, you can control the decisions and thus the outcomes. And so the law of the jungle ensues, and the one with the most power suppresses other narratives. Further abuses then flow from that, as every Nazi & Communist government’s propaganda department has proven.
3. Such a Bill with its powers and sanctions undermines democracy, by manipulating the masses to accept only the power-broker’s narrative, which inevitably leads to entrenching their power further, silencing dissenters (brutally and unjustly), and violating human rights. Government transparency has long gone by this point, replaced with shadows in which abuse & suppression is justified in the name of ‘greater good.’ Have we not learnt from history!
4. Special-pleading that “our government wouldn’t abuse such powers” only belies a profound ignorance of human nature, and the need to safeguard against its mal-practice.
5. Within a multicultural democracy, we need to not only allow freedom for very different worldviews to co-exist living according to different understandings of the truth, we must also be clear about the reasons why we must allow such freedom. Here is why we must allow freedom of speech & dissent:
a) Freedom of expression lies at the heart of human freedom - if we don’t allow speech & expression to be free, we don’t allow people to live free, to live as they ought according to their best perception of reality. Moreover we impede their engagements that can help further refine their perceptions of reality.
b) Free expression must concede that conflict must occur. As different truth-claims are made, conflicts will occur - so it must be, since the only alternative is to sacrifice freedom. And conflict per se is actually necessary, it’s a means of clarifying and learning.
c) Hurt may arise from conflict, but hurt is a price of freedom amongst diversity. If conflict per se is not harm, nor is disagreement, nor dissent, then any hurt or harm ensuing from conflict is not from conflict itself, but the ways in which conflict is done. Thus we reject that disagreement or conflict or even hurt are valid reasons for suppressing freedom of speech. It is certainly not for the State to exclude people on the basis of mere hurt feelings.
d) Harm must be carefully delineated from hurt. Harm comes from the ways in which conflict is handled, not conflict per se. Thus we may limit the ways we conflict, and police protect against bad ways. But we do not limit the content of the conflict itself. Indeed we have good and preferred ways to conflict well, productively, and to live with disagreements. We certainly do not suppress disagreements themselves.
e) We must clearly safeguard the reasonable foundations of freedom of expression, so that freedom is not made a cut flower doomed to wither without roots. The Judaeo-Christian tradition gave rise to freedom of dissent, human rights and dignity, free speech, and the Creator-referencing democracy that expressly allows participation in the state regardless of religion. Are there other worldviews that produce such freedoms? Safeguard those too. But be clear about them.
f) And conversely whatever worldviews rationalise the suppression of such freedoms, should be seen suspiciously, and certainly not entertained by the very democracy they would threaten.
Perhaps such a suspect worldview is held by the proponents of this Combating Misinformation and Disinformation Bill. The very freedoms they are using to propose it, are the same ones it threatens.
Suppressing free speech as this bill would do, as if ‘the government’ knows the truth and the populace does not, is certain to suppress truth and freedom, and thereby grievously undermine our free democracy. Please, immediately withdraw and delete this Bill, and anything like it.