As passions mount in Australia about how to respond to the perceived threat of terrorism in the wake of the bombing in London, there are calls to ‘plug the gaps’ in Australia’s existing counter-terrorism legislative response.
One of former Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, last public acts was to make a call, together with Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, to the Commonwealth to closely monitor any new legislative measures in Britain and to consider adopting them here. Today, the Prime Minister complied.
This demand fails to appreciate the extent to which Australia’s legal response to terrorism has already outstripped that in comparable jurisdictions, including Britain. In fact, Britain is playing catch up to Australia on these issues despite the fact that Britain has been dealing with the reality of terrorist-like attacks since at least 1974 when the IRA bombed a coach carrying soldiers and their families. In Britain, the ‘national security excuse’ is not readily accepted where legislation makes incursions into fundamental civil liberties, such as the right to liberty of the person. The recent impasse between the House of Commons and the House of Lords on the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill 2005 in March 2005 is testament to that. The debate prompted the third longest sitting of the House of Lords, and culminated in a series of important safeguards, including a sunset clause, being included.
In Australia, post-9/11, a series of legislative measures were introduced that give intelligence and law enforcement agencies unprecedented powers to obtain intelligence; surveil; conduct searches; and to hold people in custody. For instance, Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation officers can compel a person who is thought to have information important to a terrorism offence to answer questions, on pain of imprisonment. Australian Federal Police officers can hold a person suspected of a terrorism related offence for twice as long as an ordinary suspect, before they must be released. Public court rooms can be closed when the Attorney-General certifies that national security information may be disclosed. This is legal reality in Australia today.
It is extraordinary then that any State premier should offer to the Commonwealth such unreflective support for further legislation which may entail stripping ‘people of bad character’ of their Australian citizenship. This draconian measure is one of steps currently under contemplation by the Prime Minister.
Australia’s counter-terrorism legislation framework is commonly acknowledged as an exceptional suite of legislation. Aspects of it are currently under review by a Parliamentary committee. Other aspects of it are due to be reviewed by a committee that will be convened especially for the purpose. It is proper that this legislation be subject to the strictest standards of review because it gives to the Executive arm of government extraordinary powers and diminishes the freedoms of each of us in the Australian community.
Australians should value the relative security we enjoy and protect it. Part of protecting our security however, is to be vigilant against politicians who seek to make political hay under a fearful sun. We ought to demand that our politicians, as legislators, act dispassionately, consistent with fundamental civil liberties. None of us ought to be locked up by the Government absent the commission of a crime. None of us ought to be subject to a shoot to kill policy, such as has been adopted in the United Kingdom in the wake of the recent bombings. And none of us ought to give to any Government a carte blanche to do ‘whatever it takes to keep me safe’.
Ruddock and Howard speak of ‘plugging gaps’. This is politically expedient talk but it doesn’t reflect the reality that we must all accept we can never be sure that every possibility for causing damage and loss of life is foreclosed. The challenge we face is to accept this and to resist being turned one against another through fear and its near cousin, loathing.
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Public Interest Advocacy Centre. Ph: 02 8898 6532 or 0400 110 169