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Issue #1663      November 5, 2014

Imposing a police state

The assault on democratic rights continues. Last week the Abbott government, with the support of Labor gagged debate and rushed through Parliament the Foreign Fighters Bill (see “Foreign Fighters Bill: wide open to abuse” this issue). This is the second in a series of “counter-terrorism” bills. The third bill on data retention was introduced on October 30, with more legislation foreshadowed.

In the same week the Victorian state Coalition government released details of another bill to set up a permanent police taskforce to specifically police building workers and their union. It includes giving police the power to secretly enter and search people’s homes.

Forty-three groups have signed a letter to Attorney-General George Brandis warning that the case has not been made for the need for the so-called Foreign Fighters Bill. They include human rights, civil liberty, Muslim, refugee, legal, privacy and women’s groups, and a number of academics.

Apart from the parliamentary Labor Party, there seems to be little support for this legislation. Labor leader Bill Shorten has ignored dissenters within Labor ranks, proving to ASIO and the CIA that Labor poses no threat to their operations or goals.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, whose journalist members face 10-year jail sentences if they do their job, was a signatory to the letter and is fighting the legislation. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has so far remained silent, even though the new laws affect their members. Some of the definitions are so broad that they could be applied to areas well beyond terrorism.

For example, under the Foreign Fighters Bill anyone who engages in a “hostile activity” or “in subverting society” in a foreign country is considered to have committed a security offence. This is regardless of intent and whether the actual behaviour is connected to national security or terrorism.

Manufacturing a crisis

Over the past four to six months the Abbott government with the help of the media has diverted public attention away from the horror budget to the supposed threat of terrorism and domestic extremists. They have fostered fear and hatred of Muslims and equated Islam with terrorism in many people’s minds.

ASIO increased its security risk rating to high, meaning that a terrorist attack was imminent. The media (social and conventional) have run with gratuitous images of blood and gore. We are warned that terrorism is at our doorstep with home-grown insurgents, and we must take urgent action to keep the community safe.

The flood of propaganda has seen Muslim women assaulted and many fearing to go outdoors. There have been calls to ban head coverings, and for a short period women wearing them were to be segregated in a secure area in Parliament House.

Along with the threat of the so-called Islamic State, itself a product of the West and reactionary Arab states, this propaganda drive paved the way for the introduction of harsh, anti-democratic legislation and the sending of forces to Iraq.

The bills continue a pattern which emerged in the former Howard government’s anti-terror legislation when ASIO’s powers were extended. In fact they go further, in breaching fundamental legal principles and also raise questions of constitutionality. This pattern includes:

  • reversal of onus of proof
  • retrospective issuing of search warrants
  • bypassing the judicial system
  • curbing basic freedoms of association and travel
  • arbitrary detention
  • no right of appeal
  • no public unaccountability
  • punishment far outweighs the nature of the alleged offence.

Raft of legislation

The Senate passed the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No 1) 2014 on September 25, with the full support of the Labor Party and the Palmer United Party Senators. It became law on October 2. (See “ASIO powers: Big Brother gets bigger”, Guardian, # 1658, 01-19-2014)

This was followed by the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 which was introduced on September 29 and passed by both Houses by October 30.

The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 was introduced to Parliament on October 29, and has been referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for inquiry and report by November 17.

Federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 on October 30.

And there is more to come!

The assault is not confined to the federal arena. The Victorian Coalition government quietly released its plans to increase police powers and data collection of children as young as 10 if re-elected in the state elections on November 29. Their fingerprints would be stored on a national database. The proposed powers include covert search warrants for indictable offences carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment or more – this includes theft. At present such extreme powers apply to terrorism-related offences.

Media gagged

Under the National Security Act anyone (whistle-blowers, journalists, bloggers, etc) who “recklessly” discloses “information … [that] relates to a special intelligence operation.” faces 10 years jail. The Attorney-General unilaterally, in secret determines what is a special operation.

“… journalists have rightly said: ‘How do I know if I report on something that I am not inadvertently contravening this section?’ That tells us two things: one is that whistleblowers and journalists, who now want to act in the public interest and draw attention to failings or mistakes by our security services, face jail themselves for acting in the public interest,” Greens MP Adam Bandt said when speaking against the Bill in the Lower House.

“But more worryingly, it is going to have a chilling effect. This provision, if it goes through, will muzzle the media. It will have a chilling effect, because every journalist and every editor will now be worried about whether or not they are going to go to jail if they report on an operation in connection with the security services, and so they are going to be less likely to do it.

“This bill also significantly expands the ability of the government agencies and of the government itself to access people’s computers, their mobiles and their tablets, even where they are suspected of having done nothing wrong. Even if you are not a suspect, your computer can be accessed and it can be modified. The security services can put files onto your computer simply because you happen to be on the same network as someone who is a suspect.

“Now, that is just wrong. If you are not suspected of having done anything wrong why should the security services be able to access your computer, phone or tablet?”, Bandt asked.

Foreign Fighters Bill

The Senate was given less than one day to discuss the Foreign Fighters Bill, as Labor backed the government to gag debate. The legislation is far-reaching, going well beyond the question of Australians fighting for foreign forces or carrying out terrorist activities.

The legislation expands the definition of terrorist organisations, lowers the threshold for arrest without warrant for “terrorism offences”, extends Customs powers to detain someone and extends existing measures that were due to expire, including control orders, preventative detention orders, federal police stop, search and seizure powers and ASIO questioning and detention powers.

The Bill expands the collection and use of personal identifiers of citizens and non-citizens both arriving and departing from Australia and creates a new offence of entering a declared area overseas where terrorist organisations are active.

“The primary purpose of the amendments is to better facilitate … ASIS providing timely assistance to the ADF in support of military operations, and its co-operation with the ADF on intelligence matters,” the Counter Terrorism Bill’s explanatory memorandum states.

Data Retention Bill

If passed, the legislation would allow law enforcement agencies to access two years’ worth of customer metadata without a warrant.

“Data retention was rolled back by the European Court of Justice because it was found to violate human rights and because it did not affect authorities’ ability to do their job,” the Australian Greens said.

“Data retention will also make a mockery of the ability of journalists to protect their sources. When the government has access to a log of every phone call made in Australia and every email sent, the practice of whistleblowing will cease to exist.”

Two years ago, Malcolm Turnbull, who introduced the Bill had “very grave misgivings” about data retention, because it was “heading in precisely the wrong direction” and would create a “chilling effect on free speech” as well as invade privacy. He was right then. But now in office, at the beck and call of ASIO, his personal views count for naught.

In Australia, Howard’s anti-terror laws have been used as a model for laws relating to trade unions, in particular the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

There is nothing prevent ASIO and other agencies using these new powers against communists, trade unionists, student groups and others, who might express dissent or question the capitalist system. They are wide open to abuse with potential jail sentences for those who expose such abuses.

Terrorism must be taken seriously. Legislation such as the above will do nothing to reduce terrorist activity. The fostering of hatred towards Muslims and Islam and creating divisions in society serves to drive some into the arms of the extremists.

Likewise bombing Iraq and Syria creates greater hostility towards the US, Australia and other Western powers. Cutting young people off the dole, winding back Medicare, increasing fees for education, slashing wages, etc, will result in alienation and more vulnerable and disaffected youth.

The defeat of terrorism lies in ending wars of aggression, foreign occupations, the fostering of hatred and fear and by improving social and economic conditions.

Next article – Editorial – Taking Australia down wrong path

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