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Issue #1708      October 28, 2015

Turn to police state

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he wants to “re-set the relationship” between the federal government and the Muslim community. He has been taking advantage of a media honeymoon following his promotion to present his government as somehow different from that of Abbott. But in the midst of all the schmoozing to camera at a recent press conference, the old confrontational line was still there. “If you find Australian values unpalatable, then there’s a big wide world out there and people have got freedom of movement,” he said.

Photo: Anna Pha

The “freedom of movement” throw-away would be news to people seeking asylum in Australia. The question of the relationship between the government and the Muslim community flared up again following the shooting of accountant Curtis Cheng outside police headquarters in Parramatta. The job of accessing “radicalised” Muslim youth and putting them on a less destructive course is being discussed once more.

And while the PM is happy to talk platitudes to a gathering in honour of the National Day of Unity established by the Lebanese Muslim Association and pro-refugee organisation Welcome to Australia, the government’s real feelings are about to be expressed in draconian new legislation.

This Abbott/Turnbull government is seeking and has succeeded in passing legislation to bypass the courts, throwing out the most basic democratic rights. This includes, but is not limited to, the surveillance of telephone and internet data through metadata collection of ordinary citizens and the Border Force Act, which could see teachers, doctors and security staff jailed if they speak publicly of what they have witnessed.

The government’s abandonment of Julian Assange – an Australian citizen – in 2010 following WikiLeaks revelations is the most high profile example of how these laws can be used against future whistleblowers. The recent, defeated, attempt to give the Immigration Minister the power to strip people of their citizenship on suspicion is a pointer to the absolutist strategy being sought.

The recent Australian Border Force Act – passed with support of the ALP and opposed only by the Greens – turned the Department of Immigration into a secret security organisation with police powers. Under the Act it is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to two years, for any person working directly or indirectly for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to reveal to the media or any other person or organisation anything that happens in detention centres such as Nauru and Manus Island.

“Secrecy”

Section 42 of the Act is entitled “Secrecy” and provides that a person who is an “entrusted person” commits an offence if he or she makes a record of, or discloses, what is termed protected information. An “entrusted person” is defined to mean not only government employees, but also a consultant or contractor.

The effect of these provisions will be to deter individuals such as doctors, councillors and others who have publicly voiced their concerns about the appalling conditions endured by asylum seekers in detention centres from collecting information about those conditions and then raising their concerns in community via the media and other means.

As the Australian Lawyers Alliance put it, the government is erecting an iron curtain of secrecy over what is happening and what has happened in Australia’s immigration detention system. The Act not only criminalises whistleblowers but those such as medical professionals and teachers who believe they have an ethical duty to report physical and mental harm that occurs in a systematic fashion.

“The Border Force Act goes much further than any other Commonwealth, state or territory legislation in seeking to reduce scrutiny of government actions in a detention setting,” the Lawyers Alliance says. “This legislation is antithetical to a society that professes to be a liberal democracy where independent scrutiny of, and protection for those, who lift the veil on human rights abuses ought to be the norm.”

Fifth tranche

The shocking murder of Curtis Cheng by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar is being used opportunistically to smooth the way for a fifth “tranche” of purported anti-terror legislation. Among the bills about to be launched by Attorney-General George Brandis is one that allows for control orders on children as young as 14. The orders would put parole-like restrictions on children suspected of involvement in terrorist activity or planning. Brandis claims a 12-year-old boy came onto the “radar” of security forces in connection with suspected terrorist activity.

The community is left to wonder just how young the suspects will be who get dragged off to police headquarters for questioning. The government has defended itself from allegations of a knee-jerk reaction to the shooting of Mr Cheng by claiming that the legislation has been on the drawing board for months. NSW Premier Mike Baird wrote to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August about toughening Australia’s preventative detention regime for tackling terror threats and received an encouraging reply.

In fact, Premier Baird would like to extend the period suspects can be detained without charge from the current 14 days to 28 days. The federal attorney-general points out that the proposition would violate the Commonwealth’s constitution which allows for a maximum of eight days detention without charge. He added that the measure isn’t needed. People’s protections have already been gutted under previous “anti-terror” legislation.

The threshold test for arrest for commonwealth terrorism offences has already been lowered from “reasonable belief” to “reasonable suspicion”. “The orthodox power of arrest for terrorism offences at the lower threshold of suspicion rather than belief has given the police the power they need to arrest people preparing for terrorist crimes,” Brandis told the Australian. While the federal A-G doesn’t feel the need to extend the legal period for preventative detention at the moment, he is not discouraging the NSW Premier from making NSW legislation harsher.

“Too much”

People in contact with young Australian Muslims are appalled at the approach. Sydney-based school chaplain Sheik Wesam Charwaki has described the legislative barrage as simply “too much.” Legal experts are stunned at Baird’s gung-ho stance. “It’s ridiculous to think of someone being locked up for 28 days without charge,” Rule of Law Institute vice-president Malcolm Stewart said recently. “This is Australia, this is NSW, we don’t do that sort of thing ...”. If Australian governments don’t do “that sort of thing” already, they clearly want to.

The message to alienated Muslim youth battling unemployment, lack of services to facilitate community involvement and other problems compounded by intolerance and racism is that they are under suspicion and surveillance. If governments were serious about their “respect” and “tolerance” agenda, they would be seeking to engage with the young people considered “at risk”. Efforts in this direction are lame by comparison with the aggressive legislative response. Capitalist governments are not interested in ensuring jobs for all, for example. They are very keen, however, to exploit division and manage it in the familiar, repressive ways.

Mission creep

Muslim youth are not the only people left behind by the latest capitalist crisis. Other young people are asking if they have a place in Australian society. They question the destructive, anti-people practices of that society and the conservative values hammered by governments and the media. The federal government is eager to limit these young people’s beliefs and activities, also.

Government spokespersons use the term “radicalised youth” incessantly. One could be excused, given the anti-Muslim political environment, for thinking that the reference is limited to young people adopting a reactionary, fundamentalist brand of Islam. But it’s more than that. Leaflets from the federal government’s Living Safe Together program spell it out:

“When a person’s beliefs move from being relatively conventional to being radical, and they want a drastic change in society, this is known as radicalisation.”

“Radicalisation happens when a person’s thinking and behaviour become significantly different from how most of the members of their society and community view social issues and participate politically. Only small numbers of people radicalise and they can be from a diverse range of ethnic, national, political and religious groups.”

Radical change to society is seen as “drastic”. It cannot be viewed as desirable or necessary. Capitalism is the root cause of global poverty and the climate emergency but the idea of changing the economic system to socialism, for example, to achieve a solution will put you in a small, highly suspect minority. All political activity must follow restricted channels or be considered borderline, “illegal” or even “violent extremism”.

The example of “Karen” is given in the government’s kit. She was an activist around old growth forests who belonged to a group that advocated blockading logging sites and other forms of direct action. She grew disillusioned with these tactics and now works through the “legal system” for her “more moderate eco-philosophy”. Karen’s earlier activity used to be described as “civil disobedience” but that tolerant definition is no longer used by supporters of capitalism about the actions of citizens of capitalist countries.

The Communist Party of Australia doesn’t advocate violence to achieve the necessary, radical change to Australian society. The history of revolutions world-wide shows that the violence attending revolutions on behalf of the overwhelming majority of the population comes from privileged sections of society seeking to preserve their power. The people are then obliged to defend themselves and their chosen political course.

The job before the protectors of Australian capitalism is to ensure the just aspirations of young people for an inclusive, supportive society remain side-tracked and frustrated. The task in front of progressive Australians is to unite the forces with a shared interest in that sustainable future.

Next article – Editorial – Let’s talk about real threats

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