Internet Content, 22 June 2023

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:40): My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Minister Wong. Documents released under FOI show that the Australian government secretly asked big tech to censor and de-platform the former member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, for criticism of government policy, and the former member for Dawson, George Christensen, for promoting a peaceful phone-in protest. Twitter declined to de-platform Mr Kelly, as Twitter deemed his posts not to be misinformation. However, Craig Kelly’s entire Facebook account was removed for his posting or sharing of scientific papers, data and expert opinion that contradicted government policy. Minister, what legislative or regulatory power does any government department have to request the censoring of lawful, free political speech on social media platforms by a parliamentarian—specifically a parliamentarian?

Senator WONG (South Australia—Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:41):
Thank you to the senator for the question. The first point I’d make in relation to the questions about Mr Christensen and Mr Kelly whilst they were parliamentarians is that obviously those actions of government to which the senator is referring were actions of the previous government. That’s the first point I’d make. I can assist you as much as I can, but this might be something you might want to have a chat with those on the other side about. But, more broadly, I understand these matters were discussed in Senate estimates in response to questions from Senator Roberts in particular. I’m also advised that the approach the government took then, as the evidence by departments demonstrates, was to refer posts to social media companies for those companies to assess if those posts met the platform’s policies. The senator asked about legal provisions. The advice I have is that this is a referral process from government that was engaged in—and I assume it’s still engaged in—but ultimately the legal capacity to take down a post or whatever information is action that’s taken by the digital platform itself, and that is ultimately a matter for that platform. If there’s anything further I can assist with, I will do so. But I would again reiterate that I appreciate you have a different view, Senator, but the evidence before estimates was that the government and the health department were concerned with disinformation and misinformation, and that will inform the basis of referrals. (Time expired)

Senator Babet, a first supplementary?

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:43): Minister, which government department
decides what exactly is misinformation and what is the truth, especially when history, including the recent COVID period, teaches us that today’s mistruth is actually tomorrow’s truth? Who determines the truth, and do they have the power under our Constitution to censor—which is what they’re trying to do—free political speech? Do they have that power, Minister?

Senator WONG (South Australia—Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:44): I am of the view—and I suspect many people in this chamber are—that there is the weight of scientific evidence, peer reviewed by people who are appropriately qualified. And I will look to—

Senator Canavan interjecting—

Senator WONG: I know, Senator Canavan, these are not your views. But the view I have is that the government—

Senator Canavan interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Senator Canavan!

Senator WONG: Your government was the one that did this, so can I just be really clear, before I take that interjection—

Senator Canavan interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Senator Canavan!

Senator WONG: At least he’s consistent, I suppose!

The PRESIDENT: Minister Wong, please resume your seat. Senator Canavan, I called you to order twice, and you continued—

Senator Canavan interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Senator Canavan! Interjections are disorderly. Order, Senator Canavan! Minister Wong,
please continue.

Senator WONG: Peer reviewed advice from medical and—

The PRESIDENT: Minister Wong, please resume your seat. Senator Babet?

Senator BABET: Thank you, President. I appreciate that—

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, why are you on your feet?

Senator BABET I’m on my feet for a point of order.

The PRESIDENT: Thank you.

Senator BABET I appreciate that the minister is attempting to answer the question or, rather, dance around the question.

The PRESIDENT: What is your point of order?

Senator BABET: My point of order is that my question was, under the Constitution, which government department can censor free speech? Who can censor us? We are, of course, the parliament.

The PRESIDENT: That was part of your question and the minister is being relevant to your question.

Senator WONG: There are a few concepts in that question. One, of course, is that parliamentary privileges is an important part of the Westminster system. Secondly, there is a distinction between false information or misinformation and free speech. You and I may disagree, or you and the Morrison government may disagree, about where that time is. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Babet, a second supplementary.

Senator BABET (Victoria—United Australia Party Whip) (14:46): Thank you, Minister, for your answer. From this day forward, will your new government give a guarantee that none of your departments or agencies will ever again request big tech to censor or remove, or anything else, a lawful post by a member of parliament or a member of the public or anyone else ever again? Can you give that guarantee to the Australian people whom you represent? If you can, great; if you can’t, tell us you can’t.

Senator WONG (South Australia—Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:46): As I said in response to the primary, the advice I have is the legal framework for this is with the platforms themselves. I would make the point, Senator Babet, that I do think the rise of different platforms requires a mature conversation amongst people who may have different political views about how we manage the debates and conversations on those platforms.

I do have a view that democracy does require, and is stronger for, at least agreement around certain facts. We are better as a democracy if we can debate, on the basis of facts that we all understand, what the appropriate policy response is. I think it is a risky thing for us where we allow an equivalence between things that are demonstrably true and things that are demonstrably not.