Fear politics yet again on new terror laws

Joo-Cheong Tham is an Associate Law Lecturer at La Trobe University and has appeared as a witness before parliamentary committees inquiring into anti-terrorism legislation. He writes for Webdiary on anti-terrorism and political donation disclosure laws


Two and half years after September 11, it is clear that the Coalition government has developed a distinctive modus operandi when proposing new anti-terrorism laws. Its formula rests on five key strategies.

First, capitalise on terrorist incidents by proposing new anti-terrorism measures in the wake of such events and justifying them on the basis of being �tough on terror�. So a raft of anti-terror legislation was proposed shortly after the September 11 attacks. Similarly, the Brigitte affair prompted far-reaching offences which have the effect of cloaking much of ASIO�s activities in secrecy. The Madrid bombings provide the justification for the latest tranche of changes.

Second, propose changes which have nothing or very little to do with these terrorist incidents. It is hard, for example, to see the link between the Brigitte affair and making secret the exercise of ASIO�s powers to compulsorily question and detain without trial when these powers could but were not used against Willie Brigitte. What the proposal to ban persons who have trained with terrorist organisations from publishing their memoirs has to do with the Madrid bombings is equally a mystery.

Third, fetishise proposed anti-terrorism measures by depicting them as imperative in the �War on Terror�. Imply that failure to adopt such measures will mean, in the extreme case, the murder of innocents. Insinuate that those who fail to support such measures are, at best, unintentional allies of terrorists. In December 2002, for instance, the Coalition government strongly hinted that the ALP�s delay in supporting a detention without trial regime would result in further terrorist attacks and that blood would be on the ALP�s hands if these attacks occurred in the ensuing summer.

Fourth, ignore the existing panoply of anti-terrorism powers. Imply that measures are needed because a gap exists. Hence, the present proposal to extend the detention/interrogation time of persons suspected of �terrorism� offences to 24 hours is made without any public acknowledgment of ASIO�s extensive powers. These are powers which can result in a person not suspected of any criminal wrongdoing being detained incommunicado for rolling periods of seven-days and interrogated for up to 24 hours with no right to silence and only a heavily circumscribed right to legal representation.

Fifth, pretend that the proposals only target persons engaged in extreme acts of political/religious violence. Ignore the fact that the proposals and current laws impose guilt by association by making illegal conduct peripherally connected with acts like bombing and hijackings. Obscure the fact that these laws draw in their net certain acts of industrial action and political activity.

The current proposal to extend the detention/interrogation period, for example, is portrayed as if it only targeted terrorist suspects when it, in fact, catches persons suspected of committing a �terrorism� offence; an offence that can be committed merely by possessing a thing related to a �terrorist act�. �Terrorist act�, in turn, embraces certain acts of industrial action. Thus, a person holding a leaflet promoting picketing by nurses is, arguably, committing a �terrorism� offence.

We have, in sum, a formula based on opportunism, exaggerations and misrepresentations. It is these elements that lend substance to the charge that the Coalition government is exploiting the real fears that the Australian public has of terrorism and taking advantage of community perception that it is better at handling security issues than the ALP. It is this formula that makes up the politics of fear in the �War on Terror�.

Such politics might prove to be an electoral winner for the Coalition but there will be clear losers. The health of Australia�s democracy will be eroded by the acidic effect of fear and misrepresentations. Laws that trench upon established rights and liberties and do very little in preventing extreme acts of political violence will be on the statute books. Most of all, there will be the sharp irony of Australians being no less safe from extreme acts of political violence but, in fact, all the more vulnerable to the arbitrary state power.

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