There’s a host of initiatives, a lot of new organisations campaigning, and a lot of old organisations re-invigorated. And while it’s good to see all sorts of activity on the human rights front, let’s be clear that there’ll be no quick fixes.
One of my closest colleagues over the last few years is a former foreign correspondent, who was working in Sydney when a political shift in his home country made it unsafe for him to return. His application for asylum was treated with Immigration’s usual delicacy: he spent over a year in Villawood detention centre and has been kept on a bridging visa (no work, no income, no health care) for over four years now, as the courts continue to overturn adverse decisions of the department’s shabby Refugee Review Tribunal. His optimism about his future despite all this is sometimes quite annoying. He even makes regular re-payments towards his $64,000 detention bill. His catch-phrase in most of the talks he gives about his situation is, “remember, the darkest time is always just before the dawn”.
After the recent “terrorism summit”, it’s clear that dawn is a bit further off yet. The Howard Government has modernised the politics of fear, and brought the old Menzies mastery into the 21st century. Apparently an ASIO briefing, that there were 800 potential terrorists already in Australia, hardened the resolve of the premiers, who have agreed to legislate away any obstacles to the federal government’s plans. The “800 terrorists” story emerged in a report leaked to The Australian newspaper, and quickly got a run around the world. Away from the hype of the summit and in the cold light of day, these figures reflect more on the credibility of ASIO. ASIO’s boss Philip Ruddock jumped in with the sort of clarification one has come to expect from him:
Well, they're right in this sense that there are people in Australia that we believe are motivated to carry out such acts. But the numbers are highly speculative, and I can't confirm or deny any particular number. But the fact is, and it's an undeniable fact, that some people in Australia have trained with terrorist organisations.
The leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, wants to take things a step further, because Labor is tough on terrorism too:
We've put out one suggestion which is similar to legislation which exists now in NSW, so it's a bit tougher and we think it should be picked up in the other states in a uniform way and by Canberra, and that is to give the capacity to the police commissioner in any jurisdiction to lock down an area from which he believes a terrorist threat may be emerging or where it's actually occurred. This gives the police substantial powers of search and seizure.
Vote Labor to lock down Lakemba!
Now the good thing about all this is, as a political staffer friend pointed out this week, there’ll be a short period of time when we can all have an extra 14-day holiday. Just don’t turn up for work, and tell your boss that you can’t talk about where you’ve been. Security. You may even benefit from a new respect or fear. That’s until the IR laws come in and your boss can sack you for any reason, or none.
It’s clear though that we’re back to bi-partisan support for the mistreatment of the unpopular for political gain: support for a whole set of new laws that take away fundamental rights, with an absence of any remedies or real protections. When the government talks about bringing us into line with UK laws, it forgets to mention that we actually have a different legal system to the UK and most other Western countries - there are no effective human rights review or remedy mechanisms. Sure things aren’t perfect in the UK, USA, Canada, Europe - and governments and executives take actions which breach their own laws - but they do face review, complaint and remedy.
What’s also clear is that there’s a long way to go in Australia for those of us who want to challenge the laws: a lot of pain for those who are going to be caught up in them, and a lot of pain and neglect for others who are going to be ignored because there’s only room in the media for terrorism stories.
There’s a host of initiatives, a lot of new organisations campaigning, and a lot of old organisations re-invigorated. Our collective effort so far though has been to achieve a couple of sharp yaps from premiers before they rolled over and had their tummies tickled.
There’s another initiative coming this week, from New Matilda’s Malcolm Fraser, John Menadue and Susan Ryan. Having rebuffed various approaches from people in the field to discuss their plans, these three are coming down from the mountains this week to deliver us a tablet called a Human Rights Act for Australia. In the publicity for the launch, there’s a claim, “we will be the only organisation that will have a fully considered and drafted Act”, that “previous campaigns have suffered in part because they were led by the legal profession”, that “the campaign will require $80,000 to be successful”, and an aim to “have a Bill tabled and debated as a Private Member’s Bill within 12 months of the launch”.