Truth behind government's stunning about-face on media gag
Annastacia Palaszczuk personally pushed for laws gagging the media from reporting corruption allegations during election periods despite having earlier warned they could allow corruption to flourish by striking down whistleblowers.
The Courier-Mail can reveal the inside story of how the shambolic attempt to pass the laws unfolded before they were dropped just 20 hours after the government rushed them into parliament and declared it an "urgent bill" to be in place for the October state election.
The stunning about-face came as key proponents failed to back them, with the Local Government Association of Queensland specifically calling for journalist protections and CCC head Alan Macsporran silent on the issue.
It's understood the laws did not have the universal support of Cabinet and some ministers did not understand they specifically targeted journalists, rather than people who might make baseless allegations for political reasons.
They had the potential to gag the reporting of allegations currently before the CCC concerning South Brisbane MP Jackie Trad.
It's understood the Premier and Deputy Premier Steven Miles had pushed for the laws after the CCC asked in July for a new offence prohibiting the publicising of allegations of corrupt conduct or that a complaint had been, or would be, made to the CCC during a state or local government election period.
The laws were specifically drawn up to target the publication of allegations by newspapers, radio, television, online news media and on social media, but would have allowed candidates to tell constituents.
The penalty was six-months jail, or a $6672 fine.
The laws, introduced to parliament at 12.16pm on Thursday, had not been flagged with the Opposition, nor with journalists at Monday's post-caucus briefing at which upcoming legislation is discussed.
They were scrapped at 9.24am on Friday after being savaged by media organisations and right-to-know campaigners, with a statement from Ms D'Ath saying she was withdrawing the laws "given the limited time for the parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee to consider the law changes the CCC seeks".
Ms Palaszczuk did not answer questions from The Courier-Mail yesterday, however a spokesman for her said the Bill would not be reintroduced if her government was returned to power in October.
Neither Ms Palaszczuk, Ms D'Ath, nor any other ministers fronted the media after the decision to drop the laws was announced.
The Premier had earlier argued against the CCC's push in 2016 to introduce laws stopping the publication of corruption allegations levelled against local government candidates as an affront to whistleblowers.
"I am very concerned that the new offences proposed by the CCC's inquiry regarding the reporting and publishing of corruption allegations against council election candidates during a campaign period might deter those who can expose corrupt behaviour from doing so," she wrote in The Courier-Mail in December 2016.
In the piece, Ms Palaszczuk opined on how Queenslanders were indebted to the courage of whistleblowers and trailblazing reporters who had uncovered corruption in Queensland that led to the Fitzgerald inquiry.
"These media reports were based on the information of whistleblowers and those aware of, but not subservient to, corrupt practices in Queensland at the time," she wrote.
"We are all indebted to the courage of these fellow Queenslanders to ensure what they knew was heard."
The LGAQ yesterday called on the Government to amend the laws to protect journalists.
CEO Greg Hallam said councils did not support provisions criminalising journalism, but did back the introduction of penalties to stop complainants publicising their complaints to damage someone's reputation.
He said rather than withdrawing the Bill, councils believed it should be amended to protect journalists and then passed.
"The focus of the Bill should be on providing a disincentive to those who make baseless complaints to the CCC during election campaigns in order to denigrate their political opponents," he said.
"The CCC's figures show complaints regularly spike in the months leading up to the council elections, jumping from an average of 12 per month to 27 per month the 12 months leading up to polling day, with just 6 per cent of those allegations substantiated."
Peter Greste, who spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison on terrorism charges for his reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood opposition, said it was clear that the government had recognised that the now scrapped changes were "unwise and unpopular".
He welcomed the government's decision and said they should promise to never introduce such laws in the future.
"I think as much as anything, because of the haste with which they were trying to ram it through, it wasn't a good look at all," Professor Greste said.
"I think they should recognise that this was always a bad idea."
Professor Greste, who is a spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists Freedom, said he had not come across any journalist or lawyer who thought it was a good idea.
"Everybody was aghast at the legislation," he said. "The condemnation was fairly universal.
"If they (the government) were surprised (by the criticism), then I think they were being naive."
Deputy Opposition Leader Tim Mander said the Premier needed to explain "this abuse of power attempt" by her government.
"Annastacia Palaszczuk also needs to explain why they even attempted to crush the freedom of the press," he said.
"It only raises questions about what they're trying to hide and of course this government has been plagued with integrity scandal after integrity scandal."
Mr Mander described the Attorney-General's explanation for why the law was being withdrawn as nonsense.
Originally published as Truth behind Qld Govt's stunning about-face