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Issue #1691      July 1, 2015

Push for dictatorial powers

The week before last the Abbott government attempted to force Labor to back legislation that would have allowed it to strip dual national citizens of their Australian citizenship if the government claimed they were guilty of involvement in terrorist activities. The legislation has not yet been revealed, and the government demanded that Labor agree to the legislation without having seen it.

Three weeks ago news broke about Australian navy and security forces boarding an asylum seeker boat on the high seas and bribing its crew to take their passengers back to Indonesia.

These totally new developments demonstrate the Abbott government’s willingness to break laws and legal conventions in its insatiable drive for power.

The Indonesian government has pointed out that bribing boat crews to return to Indonesia amounts to people smuggling, deemed a crime under international law. Under Australian law people smuggling can result in a sentence of ten years imprisonment, but the Abbott government is hardly likely to indict itself for this crime.

The demand for “blank cheque” approval of citizenship legislation is equally novel and equally outrageous. The government had already obtained “in principle” agreement (if that’s the right expression) with Labor for revoking the Australian citizenship of dual nationals accused of terrorism.

However, when opposition leader Bill Shorten demanded to see the legislation before backing it in Parliament, Abbott tried to force his hand, sneering that “… some people in the Labor Party … don’t take national security as seriously as they should.”

The legislation would have involved punishment of an individual solely on the basis of a decision by the Minister for Immigration.

This would violate the legal principle enshrined in Magna Carta, under which no person can be punished unless they have been tried and found guilty, and only then on the basis of evidence.

It would also violate the Australian Constitution, which provides for separation of the powers of the judiciary and the executive government, and only permits the judiciary to try, convict and sentence someone accused of crime.

A leaked cabinet briefing paper argued that the situation requires strong laws giving the government total control, and that any legislation which required a court conviction before revoking their citizenship would be “toothless”. The paper was intended to convince doubtful members of cabinet, like communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, about the overriding need for the citizenship legislation.

Abbott is still talking about revoking the citizenship of dual nationals, but it now appears that the government will depend on extending existing legislation under which any citizen convicted of having fought Australian troops automatically loses their Australian citizenship.

The change in strategy means the government will not achieve its original wide-ranging objective, because as the cabinet briefing paper admitted: “The vast majority of nationals fighting with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq would retain their citizenship if a conviction was required”.

However, the fact remains that the government clearly wanted to be able to punish anyone it accuses of terrorism without having to produce evidence to prove the accusation.

The road to absolute power

Many commentators now say the government is becoming a fascist dictatorship. Fascist governments typically assume the power to punish individuals whom they accuse of criminal activities, and that certainly appears to have been the government’s objective in introducing the citizenship legislation.

Absolutist regimes strive to retain power by whipping up public fear about real or fictitious enemies. They pose as the sole organisation that could defeat them, and take no responsibility whatsoever for having made enemies in the first place.

Abbott’s attempt to gain unquestioned support for the citizenship legislation was preceded by his recent nationally televised “Daesh is gonna get you” speech. The briefing paper recommended pressuring Labor by reminding them that “… none of us should give succour to those who would take up arms against our soldiers or do the Australian people harm.”

And there are other very disturbing issues, including the government’s tendency to lie over its policy initiatives, its obsessive secrecy, its use of repetitive slogans, its attempts at repressing critical media (particularly the ABC), its cruelty, hypocrisy and militarism. All of those attributes are typical of dictatorships.

The government continues its relentless victimisation of asylum seekers. Proposed new legislation would allow detention centre guards to beat detainees, if necessary to death, in order to prevent escapes or property damage. Other recent legislation makes it a crime to disclose cases of abuse in detention centres, which doctors say imposes an unbearable ethical dilemma.

The government has made it virtually impossible for asylum seekers to access personal and other information and has cut funding for legal aid and interpreting services. Immigration officials recently prevented lawyers from inspecting Christmas Island facilities in a case regarding physical and psychological injuries suffered by a seven-year-old detainee.

The government excuses all these actions on the totally phoney pretext of “stopping the boats”.

The Abbott government is not yet a dictatorship, but it’s heading rapidly down that road. Under the citizenship legislation the immigration minister would have been able to arbitrarily arrest, imprison and punish any one he deemed to be a terrorist, without producing evidence and just on his say-so. It would also have set a precedent for similar action in other policy areas.

The leaking of the cabinet briefing paper indicates a high level of concern within cabinet that the new citizenship stripping legislation would have breached the constitution. Nevertheless, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the government would not have been able to enact and implement the legislation, or that it won’t try something similar again.

Labor has, after all, followed meekly in the wake of many Liberal policies. For example Labor leader Bill Shorten recently indicated that former Labor governments had erred by not being as ruthless towards asylum seekers as the Howard regime.

So Labor might have approved the citizenship legislation and the courts might have rejected an appeal against it, despite its apparent breaching of the Constitution.

The most reliable way to stop the evil Abbott government from achieving dictatorial powers is to eject it from office at the first possible opportunity.

Next article – Editorial – Act against the TPP

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