How much is enough? When will we have done all that can reasonably be done to protect Australia from terrorism while safeguarding our democratic freedoms? Since September 11, 2001 a great deal has been done. The Federal Government has spent more than $5 billion on counter-terrorism and security. This year alone expenditure on security will exceed $1.1 billion.
In addition the states and territories have spent another $300 million. Our intelligence and security agencies have doubled in size. ASIO is literally throwing money at a vastly expanded network of informants.
Federal Parliament has enacted a wide array of new counter-terrorism laws. Between September 2001 and the last federal election, parliament passed 26 counter-terrorism or security laws, including comprehensive terrorism offences and radical new powers for ASIO to interrogate and detain people who may or may not know something related to terrorism. Eight counter-terrorism and security Bills have been introduced into the present parliament.
But this isn't nearly enough. Last Thursday Prime Minister John Howard announced yet more counter-terrorism measures. ASIO is to be granted power to detain somebody for up to 48 hours in a "terrorism situation", and the state and territory police will be allowed to detain people for up to 14 days. The Australian Federal Police will be able to seek court orders allowing them to electronically monitor people by using tracking devices and the imposition of travel and association provisions.
The federal police will be able to obtain more information from telephone companies and airlines without a warrant or a court order. ASIO will have its search warrants extended from 28 days to three months, and mail interception warrants extended from three months to six months.
Federal and state police will be given powers to stop, search and question people, with random baggage searches likely to be introduced at "transport hubs" and other places of mass gatherings. There will be new offences for leaving baggage unattended at an airport, and for inciting violence against the community.
The proposal to introduce preventive detention crosses a critical threshold. It is a most odious measure, with the prospect of people being held in detention for weeks without charge, indeed without being suspected of any involvement in terrorist activities. If a person is suspected of involvement in terrorism, there is no legal impediment now to them being arrested and charged.
The offence of leaving baggage unattended at an airport is most likely to turn hundreds of travellers into criminals. But why only airports? Bus terminals, theatres and sports stadiums will be next on the list.
The offence of supporting terrorism also raises very serious problems. Many political dissenters could fall within the operation of such a law. Just what will be considered support for violence will be a most difficult question. In 2003, 500,000 people marched in Sydney to oppose Australia's pending invasion of Iraq. Were they supporting an enemy?
All this was announced in haste and without consultation with the government party room, parliament or the community. No case for change was made. Australia's national counter-terrorism alert level remained at "medium". For good measure, the proposals have been presented to the premiers for endorsement on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. No doubt any objections will be branded as "soft on terrorism".
Australia's counter-terrorism laws have not been shown to be deficient. In significant ways they exceed British and United States laws. Moreover, as Phillip Boulten, SC, a leading defence lawyer, recently said: "What is clear from the pattern of interrogations, arrests and trials is that most of the existing powers have not yet been utilised at all and those that have, only infrequently. The questioning and detention regime seems, therefore, to be disproportionate to the threat that terrorism poses to Australia."
Under the guise of being tough on terrorism, the government is bringing in divisive and flawed laws and compromising our justice system. By targeting and alienating Australia's Muslims, the government is jeopardising the co-operation and assistance vital for successful counter-terrorism efforts.
I supported previous counter-terrorism laws as I was convinced of their necessity and the adequacy of the safeguards that were put in place. However, I cannot support these new proposals for the government has not made the case for them. Enough is enough. Preventive detention pushes the pendulum too far and should be resolutely opposed.
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