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Issue #1945      14th December, 2020

Bill of Rights urgent

The recent involvement of Australian military forces and Reservists in domestic affairs looks harmless enough. Indeed, there was a great deal of public support for their assistance during last season’s bushfires and more recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the involvement of the military in domestic affairs is creeping in with legislation before Parliament that would give Australian and foreign forces the power to intervene in civil affairs at the call of the Defence Minister.

The Defence Legislation Amendment (Enhancement of Defence Force Response to Emergencies Bill) 2020 gives the Defence Minister the power to call out the military and federal police to intervene in domestic matters.

It is being sold to the public on the basis that the federal government does not have the power to send in assistance during natural disasters and emergencies without first receiving an invitation from a state or territory. But its content goes much further than bushfires and pandemics

MILITARISATION OF SOCIETY

The bill states the call out may occur in the event of a “natural disaster or other emergency.” The term “other emergency” is not defined. That is left to the Defence Minister in consultation with the Prime Minister.

The personnel who may be called out are not limited to Defence Force and Reserves. They could be: “[…] an APS [Australian public servant] employee or other employee of the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority or agency…”

Alarmingly the bill goes on to authorise: “a member of the naval, military or air force of a foreign country, or a member of a foreign police force (however described).” Is this referring to US marines stationed in Darwin, foreign forces being trained in Australia? Who and why?

The government would not be slow to point to the potential economic impact as a threat to national security. It is worth recalling how it falsely claimed urgently needed masks were being held up on ships stranded outside ports because of Maritime Union of Australia industrial action.

The Memorandum of Understanding gives the impression that the use of force is not permitted, but nowhere in the bill does it preclude the use of force.

INCREASE IN ASIO’S POWERS

The government plans to embark upon a complete overhaul of the spy powers of Australia’s intelligence agencies, replacing a myriad of laws with one Act. In particular, the new laws would increase the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO) powers.

ASIO would be able to spy on Australians citizens, including dual nationals, who work for a foreign government. At present ASIO has the power to spy on Australians where they pose a threat to security or are engaging in foreign interference or espionage activities. The new bill extends this power to cover individuals who could be considered to be working in a way counter to Australia’s broader economic interests, even if they are not breaking any laws. This focus on the economic extends ASIO’s reach into non-security matters.

Such provisions would appear to encompass Australians who work for Chinese state-owned companies. It could be an extension of other intelligence operations conducted by the Five Eyes (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and UK) joint intelligence operation.

BIG BROTHER

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there has been a succession of laws removing basic democratic rights, first in the name of anti-terrorism and then “national security.” Australia now has some of the most repressive, draconian legislation found in any western “democracy.”

One of the earliest pieces is the 2001 Cybercrime Act that provides for a member of state or federal police force to apply for an “assistance order”, allowing them to access data stored on any data storage devices such as computers. It is not necessary for the owner or user of the device to be suspected of any crime.

Electronic Frontiers Australia described the Cybercrime Act as introducing an alarming law enforcement provision requiring release of encryption keys or decryption of data, contrary to the common law privilege against self-incrimination. Failure to provide the information was punishable by a maximum of six months’ imprisonment (later increased to two years.)

INCREASING SURVEILLANCE

In 2015, the Abbott government passed the metadata retention bill that requires all telecommunications companies to store their users’ metadata for two years. This metadata includes the date and time of calls, emails, texts, and Internet sessions.

The government argued that such powers were required to catch terrorists and organised criminals. By 2016, sixty government agencies had applied to the Attorney-General for data access, including the Australian Taxation Office, Department of Human Services, and even local councils.

For example, the Bankstown Council sought and was granted metadata access in order to catch those responsible for illegal rubbish dumping. Queensland Police Service requested access to the metadata of cadets in an attempt to determine if cadets were sleeping with one another or faking sick days. It is a stretch of imagination to categorise rubbish dumping and the monitoring of sexual activities as the pursuit of terrorists or organised criminals.

According to Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Australia is the only Western “democracy” to have such pervasive surveillance laws. As with a number of Australian laws, there is no transparency or accountability by an independent body to oversee the legislation’s use.

In October, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security made bipartisan recommendations for the scaling back of the metadata retention regime. Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) senior lawyer Alice Drury welcomed the Committee’s recommendations to wind back the laws.

“In a democracy, we should be able to go about our lives without a bunch of government agencies secretly scooping up details of where we’ve been, who we’ve spoken to and the text messages we’ve sent. […] These laws go further than any other democracy in the world. The Morrison government should follow the Committee’s advice and scale them back,” said Drury.

Other laws encroach on the rights of journalists and whistleblowers with charges being laid, raids on homes and the offices of the ABC and News Corp. Those charged face hefty prison terms if convicted, while the real guilty parties go free.

SILENCED AND INTIMIDATED

In 2015, the federal government amended the Border Force Act to make it a crime for “entrusted persons” to record or disclose information about misconduct, corruption, or human rights abuses in detention centres. The maximum penalty is two years imprisonment.

Then in 2018, the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act passed, making it an offence for journalists or anyone else to report information that could damage the nation’s international reputation. The penalty is twenty-five years or life imprisonment depending on intent of the action.

“Whistleblowers and public interest journalism are vital to the health of our democracy. Australians have a right to know what our governments are doing in our name,” the HRLC said.

ALARMING TRENDS

The above are a few examples of laws that erode the democratic rights of Australians. They are being introduced a little bit at a time. It is only when they are taken as a whole that the extent of the loss of democratic rights becomes apparent.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers has compiled the following list of examples of rights that have been lost:

  • Remove the “right” to protest, criminalise protesters and authorise military intervention to diffuse demonstrations;
  • Criminalise whistleblowers who speak out against crime, corruption and other forms of misconduct by the government and its agencies, and gradually broaden the reach of those prohibitions;
  • Vastly increase the government’s powers of surveillance;
  • Give police and other law enforcement agents immunity from both civil and criminal prosecution for anti-terrorism raids, even if those raids are unjustified and the agents commit heinous crimes against innocent people;
  • Make it extremely difficult to achieve bail, leading to many being kept behind bars for years on little evidence;
  • Dilute the right to silence and even remove it altogether in certain cases;
  • Remove legal professional privilege in a range of situations;
  • Reverse the presumption of innocence for certain offences;
  • Bolster the powers of law enforcement in many areas, including the powers of arrest;
  • Remove the right against detention without charge through instruments such as ‘control orders’ and ‘preventative detention orders’ – which allow police to arrest and detain people without charge for protracted periods of time;
  • Facilitate the detention of individuals for possible “future crimes.”

BIPARTISAN SUPORT

Regrettably, they have received bipartisan support, with Labor at best expressing some concerns but then quietly voting for the bills. Labor hides behind the cloak of bipartisanship over “security” matters instead of exposing the dangerous nature of the bills and fighting to defeat them.

In the process there is little public accountability or disclosure, and full discussion of the bills is lacking. In all, federal and state governments have passed hundreds of repressive laws since 2001.

The corporate media, in particular Murdoch’s tabloids, give little exposure if any. The only parliamentary party to consistently expose the significance of this legislation and vote against it is the Australian Greens.

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) has consistently analysed, warned of the dangers, and opposed the legislation.

BILL OF RIGHTS

Australia, with such breaches of basic democratic and human rights, cannot call itself a democracy and point its finger at other states. We have no credibility internationally.

Before this creeping fascism goes any further, and we wake up one day in a police state, we must halt the flow of such legislation.

The CPA calls for the immediate repeal of the draconian and repressive laws and the adoption of a Bill of Rights at the federal level.

Next article – India on strike for its farmers

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