The terror within

South Australian and federal government moves to “protect” us from threats may open citizens to other insidious dangers, writes Malcolm King.

Oct 31, 2017, updated Oct 31, 2017
What would stop a malevolent government from using anti-terrorism laws to spy on its citizens? File image

What would stop a malevolent government from using anti-terrorism laws to spy on its citizens? File image

The enemy, real or imagined, is always out there. From Chinese gold miners in the 19th century to threats of a Japanese invasion, boat people to militant religious sects.

The same architecture of fear arose in the 1950s and early ’60s when rumours of communist plots spread from Balmain to Burnside. There were Reds under every bed.

Since 9/11 the Australian Government has created more than 70 anti-terrorism laws, which have fundamentally changed the Criminal Code Act and the presumption of innocence.

Most were passed without a peep from the Opposition, frightened it would be called “weak on terrorism”.

The Federal Government was right in the aftermath of 9/11 to introduce new laws to track and prosecute those who would fund terrorism.

Unfortunately both the federal and South Australian governments have an unslakeable thirst for anti-terrorism laws, which are violently disproportionate to the threat posed.

We now have detention without charge of those accused of plotting or communicating terrorism, the detention of children as young as 10 years old, control orders barring association and extraordinary biometric tracking powers to spy on the citizenry.

This includes CCTV surveillance at major venues such as the Adelaide Oval, which may be monitored from Canberra.

The Federal Government’s metadata retention laws mean that 21 enforcement agencies, including ASIO, now have warrantless access to your digital communications, including GPS tracking.

In the past eight years, there have been nine serious credible terrorist threats in Australia, mostly in New South Wales, in which the perpetrators were apprehended, trialled and jailed. The plots were foiled by security forces using intelligence-gathering measures that existed before 9/11.

The most pernicious anti-terror laws are control orders. You can be banned from visiting specific places or communicating with nominated people. You can be compelled to wear a tracking device and the orders apply to children as young as 14 years of age.

In South Australia, similar extraordinary powers were used to ban bikie gangs from associating with each other. Former Premier Mike Rann said: “We’re allowing similar legislation to that applying to terrorists, because (bikie groups) are terrorists in our community.”

Some bikies have extensive criminal records and you may not want your daughter marrying one, but they are not terrorists.

There is no appeal and in some cases, no bail. Parliament and not the courts create these laws. Parliament has the power to make, within the parameters of the constitution, any law it wants.

Under Attorney-General John Rau, South Australia has rammed through a raft of anti-privacy legislation, creating a police state.

In a staggering move, the State Government is now considering giving SAPOL ‘shoot to kill powers’ for alleged violent offenders or terrorists – a move pushed by the Liberal Opposition.

How can you tell the difference between a terrorist and a schizophrenic person who is off medication? Police want immunity from prosecution if they get it wrong.

Following a tabloid media campaign, young offenders in SA could be sentenced as adults for serious crimes. They could serve up to 15 years for offences they committed as 15-year-olds.

The anti-terror laws are ‘landmines’ waiting to explode in the future. We mistakenly think the future will be like the past. A malevolent or tyrannical government may use these laws to spy on or jail its citizens.

It’s worth remembering the words of a leading European politician many years ago:

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

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That’s Hermann Goering interviewed during the Nuremberg trials in 1946.

At a meeting in October of federal, state and territory leaders, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said: “Notional considerations of civil liberties do not trump the very real threat of terror in our country today…”

Surely, in the never-ending ‘war against terror’, aren’t civil liberties what separates us from the barbarians? Aren’t these what we’re fighting for? Liberty suffocates in a police state.

When fear and hatred dig their stirrups deep in to the flanks of the body politic, they are aided by the public’s historical amnesia – a great forgetting about the lessons of the past.

The honest and innocent take for granted the probity of the police and the security forces. You are presumed innocent until found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Yet in recent times, there have been cases when the police were so confident of the guilt of an accused, they prosecuted the innocent to get a conviction.

Tim Anderson was convicted of the Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney in 1978 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison, largely on hearsay evidence of an unreliable informer. He served six years and was acquitted on appeal.

In WA in 1994, Andrew Mallard was sentenced to life imprisonment. In part, he was convicted by fictitious police interview notes. He served 10 years in jail before winning his appeal.

There have been numerous cases, including the notorious Lindy Chamberlain trial, where innocent people were wrongly convicted and later exonerated.

When fear and hatred dig their stirrups deep in to the flanks of the body politic, they are aided by the public’s historical amnesia – a great forgetting about the lessons of the past.

History has languished in schools and universities for 40 years. Yet in those dusty pages, from the Magna Carta to the modern era, lie the lessons of nations who sacrificed freedoms to find they never returned.

The tide of mistrust and nationalism is rising. Lawyers who defend refugees are called ‘unAustralian’ as are investigations into the conduct of our armed forces in Afghanistan. Next stop is loyalty oaths as the sun sets on the age of reason.

As President John F Kennedy said: “I do not mean to condemn our central effort to protect the nation’s security … many of our measures of vigilance have ample justification. Yet there are few among us who do not share a portion of the blame for not recognizing soon enough the dark tendency towards excess of caution.”

We need a constitutional Bill of Rights to protect the rights of all and to provide a yardstick to assess these anti-terror laws. It protects equality before the law, freedom from torture, freedom of thought, conscience and belief. It guarantees freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and much more.

This nation and South Australia, especially, need a Bill of Rights to protect its citizens from the executive arm of its own government.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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