On 2 March 2016, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) tabled its latest report. The report, entitled ‘Traditional Rights and Freedoms-Encroachments by Commonwealth Laws’ (‘Freedoms Inquiry’), responds to the terms of reference of the Commonwealth Attorney-General, which ask the ALRC to identify and critically examine Commonwealth laws that encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges – namely those recognised by the common law.

For the purposes of the inquiry, laws that encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms or privileges are understood to be laws that, inter alia, ‘reverse or shift the burden of proof’, ‘deny procedural fairness to persons affected by the exercise of public power’, ‘interfere with freedom of speech, religion, vested property rights or freedom of movement’ or ‘retrospectively change legal rights and obligations’ (Freedoms Inquiry, pg. 5).

The ALRC, in addressing the mandate, considered the source and rationale of each right, and the protections afforded through it, under both Australian and international law. The Report observed that the Australian Constitution ‘expressly protects a handful of rights’, and has been found to imply certain others, such as freedom of political communication (Freedoms Inquiry, para. 1.8). Internationally, many of the relevant rights have been enshrined in human rights treaties, to which Australia is a signatory, affording limited protection under international law.

 The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is perhaps the most well-known and influential human rights treaty. Under Article 4, the ICCPR provides for the derogation of certain rights, where governments can temporarily suspend the operation of certain rights in times of ‘public emergency’. However, Article 4(2) makes clear that no derogation is permitted from a number of articles, including inter alia the right to life (Article 6), freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 7) and freedom from the operation of retroactive criminal law (Article 15).

According to the Australian government, this same suite of non-derogable rights can be further classified into ‘absolute’ or ‘non-absolute’ rights. Absolute rights are those which ‘no circumstance justifies a qualification or limitation upon them’, and are identified by the government as freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, freedom from slavery or servitude, freedom from imprisonment for inability to fulfil a contractual obligation, a prohibition against the retrospective operation of criminal laws and right to recognition before the law. Whilst under the ICCPR, the right to life enshrined in Article 6 is non-derogable, the Australian government classifies it as a non-derogable non-absolute right, where limitations can be applied. According to the government, the right to life is expressed as a freedom from ‘arbitrary’ deprivation of life, indicating that certain circumstances may ‘justify the taking of life, where necessary, reasonable and proportionate’. Furthermore, Article 18 of the ICCPR, which provides for the non-derogable right to freedom of religion, is subject to a limitation in Article 18(3) which allows only such limitations as are ‘necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others’.

Whilst international law can be an important common law influence, it does not create binding domestic law and, most importantly, does not ‘abrogate the power of the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws that limit rights’ (Freedoms Inquiry, para. 1.9). International law works in a number of other ways to protect rights, when those rights are not explicitly incorporated into our domestic law. For example, Australia has human rights reporting obligations, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee considers communications from individuals with complaints of human rights violations. There are a number of governmental processes that operate to scrutinise laws and their compatibility with our international human rights obligations. For example, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights must examine all bills or legislative instruments that come before parliament for their compatibility with human rights. The ALRC itself is required by legislation to ‘aim to ensure its recommendations are consistent with Australia’s international obligations’ (Australian Law Reform Commission Act 1996 (Cth), s 24(1)). Nonetheless, international law itself cannot operate to ‘override clear and valid provisions of Australian national law’ (Minister for Immigration v. B).

The Freedoms Inquiry identifies an extensive number of Commonwealth laws that potentially limit common law freedoms. The Terms of Reference mandated the ALRC was then mandated to ‘critically examine’ the laws to determine whether the encroachments upon those rights and freedoms are appropriately justified. The ALRC identified proportionality as one of the major tools utilised in the determination of the justification of laws and drew upon it in its consideration of the justification for the laws (Freedoms Inquiry, para. 1.14).

Proportionality ‘involves considering whether a given law that limits rights has a legitimate objective and is suitable and necessary to meet that objective, and whether – on balance – the public interest pursued by the law outweighs the harm done to the individual right’ (Freedoms Inquiry, para 1.15). Proportionality has been adopted as a tool by Australian courts in determining the constitutionality of certain laws, often considered within the well-known test of whether a law is ‘reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve a legitimate end’ (Freedoms Inquiry para. 2. 66).

The ALRC highlighted laws which may be unjustified, and therefore warrant further review. It did not, however, come to specific conclusions about the justification for each law, ‘as further evidence and analysis would be necessary to support such specific conclusions’ (Freedoms Inquiry para. 1.18). Essentially, the scope of rights it considered, from freedom of speech to property rights, was too broad for the ALRC to put forth detailed recommendations for each substantive area.

Freedom of speech is one example of a right subject to limitations that potentially fall short of the common law proportionality test. Furthermore, the scope of the freedom itself in Australia is narrower than that enshrined in instruments such as the ICCPR. Whilst freedom of speech is considered one of the ‘fundamental values protected by the common law’ (Nationwide News v. Wills), in Australia it is essentially limited to political communications that are ‘necessary for the effective operation of that system of representative and responsible government provided for by the Constitution’ (Lange v. Australian Broadcasting Corporation). There are numerous precedents illustrating the freedom does not extend to non-political communication (Freedoms Inquiry, paras. 4. 25 – 4. 27). Australia is the only democratic country that does not protect freedom of speech in a national constitution or enforceable human rights legislation.

Under the ICCPR, however, a much broader protection for freedom of speech is provided for. It includes protection of ‘political discourse, commentary on one’s own and on public affairs, canvassing, discussion of human rights, journalism, cultural and artistic expression, teaching and religious discourse’. Nonetheless, the ICCPR and the related Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights still provide guidelines as to when rights, including freedom of speech may be subject to limitations. Generally, they may be restricted in order to pursue legitimate objectives such as the protection of reputation and public safety.

The modern offence of advocating terrorism under s 80.2C of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) (Criminal Code) was identified by the ALRC as one which may encroach upon this common law freedom. The Criminal Code makes it an offence if a person advocates the doing of a terrorist act or the commission of a terrorism offence, and is reckless as to whether another person engages in that conduct as a consequence. A person ‘advocates’ the doing of a terrorist act if the person ‘counsels, promotes, encourages or urges’ it. The offence was considered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (‘Committee’), which concluded that the provision was ‘likely to be incompatible with the right to freedom of opinion and expression’ as enshrined in Article 19 of the ICCPR.

The concerns of the Committee, which is mandated to consider compatibility with international law, is that a number of provisions in the Criminal Code already operate to restrict speech that incites violence, and expressed concern that the advocating terrorism offence was ‘overly broad’ in its application, particularly as the offence only requires a person to be reckless as to the consequences of their words or conduct (Freedoms Inquiry, para. 4.80). The Committee acknowledged the Attorney-General’s response that such an intention requirement is necessary because often there is a lack of sufficient evidence to meet the threshold required by other incitement of violence offences, which is an intention for violence to occur as a result of a person’s conduct. Nonetheless, the Committee concluded that it would be ‘appropriate to further clarify the meaning of “advocate” to assist people in “prospectively knowing the scope of their potential criminal liability”’ (Freedoms Inquiry, para. 4.84). These concerns were not incorporated into the Bill. A number of submissions to the Freedoms Inquiry, incorporated directly into the report, further emphasised concerns with the limitations of the law, particularly in relation to its limitations on ‘the capacity for individuals to voice their views and opinion on terrorism and overseas conflicts’ (Freedoms Inquiry, para. 4.86), as well as the use of a recklessness standard.

The ALRC concludes that s 80.2C should be subject to further review to establish whether it, among with several other laws which encroach upon freedom of speech, unjustifiably limits the freedom.

The Freedom Inquiry is comprehensive in scope, and merits careful study by anyone interested in the relationship between statutory laws, common law rights and broader public interests. This report is a result of widespread community engagement and consultation and careful legal analysis, and provides a comprehensive and thorough response to the Attorney-General’s mandate.

Alexis Hedger is Assistant Editor of the ILA Reporter.