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.
Antiterror laws damage Australian
|Philip Bowring |
OCTOBER 28, 2005
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
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
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
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
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."