People face fines of up to $12,000 if they vilify, threaten or intimidate anyone during the postal survey on same-sex marriage.
With ballot papers now being sent out, the Turnbull government on Tuesday confirmed it would proceed with emergency legislation to prevent any menace to people on the basis of their sexual orientation or religious conviction.
The laws were quickly described as a “threat to free speech” by one right-wing think tank, with complainants able to seek an injunction against offending material in the federal court.
Proceedings against a person accused of breaking the laws will not commence without the approval of Attorney-General George Brandis.
It is understood the laws will apply to all conduct, including written material such as advertising and even social media posts.
“It will be unlawful to vilify, intimidate or threaten to harm a person either because of views they hold on the survey or in relation to their religious conviction, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status,” a government source said.
“There will be a gatekeeper, namely the Attorney-General, whose consent to a contravention action will be required.”
The government will introduce the legislation on Wednesday in the hope it can pass through the Parliament by the end of the sitting week on Thursday.
The legislation is required because the survey is being conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, rather than the Australian Electoral Commission, meaning the Commonwealth Electoral Act does not apply.
The protections against vilification, threats and intimidation are in addition to laws under the Act, which will also be enacted during the survey.
“This includes provisions to ensure relevant authorisations on advertisements, reasonable opportunity to have opposing views broadcast, offences against bribery and threats and the prohibition of misleading and deceptive conduct in relation to the completion of survey forms,” acting Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann said.
Labor has offered in-principle support for the protections, though it is waiting to see the final legislation. The Greens also support the additional protections.
The Attorney-General would likely enforce the laws with “a bias towards freedom of speech”, Senator Cormann told the Coalition party room on Tuesday.
Still, the proposed laws have already faced some backlash.
One MP told the Coalition party room that they did not support the protections against vilification, while the Institute of Public Affairs described the proposals as a “threat to free speech”.
“Vilification laws are used to silence opponents. Attempts to limit the scope of public debate are an affront to liberal democratic principles,” said Simon Breheny, Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs.
That criticism came one day after Nationals senator Matt Canavan, a ‘No’ campaigner, said LGBTI campaigners concerned about hate speech needed to “grow a spine”.
On Tuesday, Labor senator Penny Wong said there were already “hurtful” and “hateful” things being said.
“They might be said politely, but they are hurtful and inaccurate about our families, about our children,” said Senator Wong, who has children with her partner Sophie.
“This bill won’t protect against all of the hate speech that we already see. It will provide some limited protections. But the real leadership has to come from the Parliament and the government.”