International Herald Tribune

Antiterror laws damage Australian liberties
Philip Bowring

SYDNEY Support may be waning in the United States for extraordinary antiterror measures, including torture and internment at Guantánamo Bay, but Australia is about to extend arbitrary government powers in the name of citizens' security.
Prime Minister John Howard is set to bring in legislation giving the police and intelligence services new powers to arrest and detain without trial. The new laws also extend the concept of sedition, which in principle might be used against opponents of Australia's military involvement in the Iraq and Afghan wars or sympathizers of those deemed enemies.
These draft measures have already been given the consent of state premiers who, under Australia's federal system, must approve parts of the legislation. Although the states are overwhelmingly controlled by the Labor opposition, the party as a whole has not dared to challenge Howard, the leader of the Liberal Party, on this issue for fear of alienating an electorate fed a daily media diet of "Muslim terror threats."
It has fallen to the unlikely figure of Malcom Fraser to emerge as the most eloquent critic not only of these measures but also of existing so-called antiterror legislation. Fraser, now 75, was Liberal prime minister from 1975 to 1983 and is generally reviled by the left for the way he came to power in a constitutional coup that overthrew his Labor predecessor, Gough Whitlam. But his current defense of civil liberties is putting to shame most of Labor, now run by party apparatchiks and trade-union princelings.
"The government and opposition," Fraser thundered, "assume we cannot fight terrorism while adhering to principles of democracy and justice. Their folly is a grave threat to our freedom." Under laws that date from 2002, an Australian can be detained indefinitely, without access to family or lawyer, under security department warrants because the authorities believe they may know something. Journalists can be jailed for writing about detentions and detainees for writing about their experiences.
The new legislation provides for "control orders" - effectively house arrest - as well as secret preventive detention, monitoring of lawyers and protection for "shoot to kill" policies of terror suspects.
The draft legislation will probably be watered down to mollify civil society and lawyers groups, as well as the left and the Greens, who have criticized it. But there is no stopping the general thrust of the proposals, and there has been no stopping to ask whether Australia really needs most of the new state powers acquired since the Sept. 11 attacks. They exceed, critics say, emergency powers adopted when Australia was directly threatened by Japan in 1942. Had they existed during the Vietnam War, they could have been used to jail most of the top ranks of the Labor Party.
Australia is a potential terrorist target, given its role in Iraq and Afghanistan and general support for U.S. policies. The 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 88 Australians, has left a deep impact, with Muslim terrorism building on much older fears of populous, poor Indonesia. Australia itself, however, has been terror-free. The new legislation is said to be a response to the recent London bombings, though they surely show that draconian legislation is of scant use against home-grown terror groups. Australia's significant Muslim minority sees itself as targeted by the legislation.
Meanwhile, Australia is eroding - to the detriment of human rights throughout the region - its ability to admonish neighboring Asian governments that use internal security legislation to bypass the courts and public scrutiny.
Australia's fear-driven legislation scarcely accords with its self-image as a tough-minded, open society tolerant of all comers and all views. Howard has twice won re-election with the help of tough talk and scare tactics, first on illegal migrants, more recently on terrorism.
The public is perhaps too preoccupied with a decade of prosperity to notice what has been happening to traditional liberties. Australians take comfort, too, in the belief that the new laws will only be used sparingly and against a tiny number of people who are a real threat. But Australia's actual record is not so good. Aboriginals were long denied access to the rights and freedoms applying to the rest of the population. More recently, government departments have been found to use executive powers to bypass the courts, in one recent case deporting an Australian citizen to her country of origin without due process.
Australia needs a strong intelligence system, an ability to detect and deter. But the intelligence function is very different from that of the police and courts. As Fraser succinctly put it: "If arbitrary power exists, it will be abused."

IHT Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune |