Crikey’s readers will remember that last November, facing strong
internal criticism of its sedition law from the likes of Malcolm
Turnbull and George Brandis, the Howard government promised that the
law would be reviewed in the new year – although after coming into
effect, not before.

Now the review has been officially announced: the Australian Law Reform Commission is to conduct an inquiry, on a very tight timetable: a discussion paper will be published “as soon as possible” and the final report is due by 30 May.

The ALRC’s press release
captures the issue in familiar terms: “Concern to protect the security
of Australians here and abroad must be balanced against the fundamental
rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association.”

But attorney-general Philip Ruddock seems to be on a different wavelength from the Commission. His press release announcing the inquiry makes no mention of freedom of speech. Nor do the terms of reference.
Instead, he sees the issue as “whether the amendments … effectively
address the problem of urging the use of force or violence” and “the
problem of organisations that advocate or encourage the use of force or
violence to achieve political objectives”.

In other words, Ruddock simply takes it for granted that these are
problems, and the only question is whether the sedition laws are the
best way of dealing with them. But for defenders of free speech,
“urging”, “advocating” or “encouraging” violence, provided it falls
short of incitement, is just part and parcel of robust debate.

Unlike the government, the ALRC appears to take free speech seriously.
It may therefore be setting itself up to produce a report that, from
the government’s perspective, will miss the point completely.