The competing priorities of our two major newspaper chains are on
display this morning. Both focus on the anti-terrorism legislation, but
The Age headlines with “PM faces pressure on terror law,” while The Australian has “Beazley’s terror law turmoil.”

They’re both right, but Kim Beazley’s predicament is more embarrassing.
Just as the terrorism debate was starting to look messy for the
government, he leaps into the breach with a half-baked proposal of his
own, dividing his supporters and diverting attention away from Howard’s

Beazley’s idea is a national racial and religious vilification law,
which, he says, would outlaw “hate books and violent preaching.” The
details haven’t appeared on his website yet, but according to yesterday’s Age he called for “tighter national laws that elevate inciting religious violence to a criminal offence.”

Racial and religious vilification laws have traditionally been an ALP
project. Although Beazley seemed to recognise that existing laws are
objectionable because they “do not protect peaceful religious
preaching,” he confirmed that Labor, just as much as the government, is
fixed on banning words rather than deeds.

Howard’s reaction was spot on: “Last week I thought the problem with
these laws was that they trampled on people’s rights. Now he’s saying
they’re not tough enough. I’m confused and I think the public is
confused.” John North, president of the NSW Law Council, added that “we
should not be legislating on the run for something as important as
freedom of speech.”

Howard was even mischievous enough to say, “You can’t graft racial
vilification laws into the law relating to sedition,” although it
appears that is just what his own proposals try to do. According to the
Stanhope draft,
the proposed section 80.2(5) would make it an offence to “urge a group
or groups (whether distinguished by race, religion, nationality or
political opinion) to use force or violence against another group or
other groups (as so distinguished).”

But the fact that Howard can make even this implausible claim to be a
defender of free speech shows the magnitude of Beazley’s ineptitude. Patrick Walters, in this morning’s Australian,
says that Beazley’s plans “risk blunting what should be Labor’s clear
political message to John Howard.” But perhaps more seriously, they
raise again the general question of whether anyone cares what Kim
Beazley says about anything.