Law changes sought to help protect free speech, belief
Proposed changes to the state’s anti-discrimination laws that would protect some religious believers from being unfairly pursued could be brought to Parliament as early as June.
Mark Latham MLC introduced the private members bill in the NSW Legislative Council in February to amend the handling of complaints by the Anti-Discrimination Board. He said it will prevent its processes being abused to potentially financially ruin anyone in the country who expressed views on social media that individuals sought to punish.
Mr Latham was prompted in part by the experiences of Catholic blogger Bernard Gaynor and a former Newcastle taxi driver with an acquired brain injury, John Sunol, who have each had multiple complaints brought against them by political activist Garry Burns.
In April the Board’s president Annabelle Bennett ruled that complaints Mr Burns lodged last December against Israel Folau’s comments on social media and during a church sermon relating to homosexuals and same-sex marriage were vexatious and an abuse of the process.
Mr Latham told The Catholic Weekly that while he welcomed that outcome “it should never have got to that stage and the reason for my private member’s bill is to ensure that it never happens again”.
He said the bill is aimed at bringing NSW into line with other states, which all have higher thresholds at which complaints may be accepted. It would increase provisions for the Board’s president to decline complaints as frivolous or vexatious if necessary, and remove the requirement for the President to refer rejected complaints to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
“There’s been a very clear pattern of activists using the anti-discrimination laws of NSW for political purposes, in particular gay activists targeting Christians but also other vulnerable people in the community,” Mr Latham said.
Mr Gaynor told The Catholic Weekly that it is “an absolute disgrace” that the Anti-Discrimination Board “has allowed a vexatious ‘anti-free speech’ activist to target Catholics and Christians simply because he wants them silenced”.
“this dreadful process of ‘lawfare’ can drag on for years”
“I am very grateful to Mark Latham for his hard work to address this issue,” Mr Gaynor said. Currently the law allows for complaints to be lodged at no cost. If the complaint is deemed frivolous or vexatious by the Board president, an appeal can be lodged with the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, where penalties of up to $100,000 can be awarded, and it can also be pursued through the courts.
“In the case of Bernard Gaynor it’s got to the ridiculous point where we’re spending legal affairs money in NSW pursing a Queenslander where he lives,” said Mr Latham.
“People then have to defend themselves, hire lawyers and engage in this dreadful process of lawfare that can drag on for years, destroy them financially and in the pressure and publicity that’s applied to them.
“It is plainly wrong. Discrimination is an important matter yet resources are being wasted in the political pursuit of people who has done nothing wrong, not to mention people who live in other states, which is even more absurd.”