Thursday, October 9, 2014

Stringent laws create new terrors

As Australia was positioning to take up the fight in Iraq, those with first-hand experience in the region were under no illusions about the patience required, the low prospects for success, and the specific challenges of guerilla warfare against religious fanatics.

One, who had been at the tip of the spear in previous campaigns, gave me a chilling prediction: "These guys will melt back into the civilian population and they'll extract a heavy moral price in Iraq if we want to go after them."

Already, that's been proved correct which is why when Australia flew its first active combat missions this week, the FA-18 Super Hornets returned to base after seven hours aloft, their lethal payloads still heavy under-wing. It was at once a sign of Australia's essential civility – refusing to pursue and eliminate targets when civilians became endangered – and, of the likelihood that this will be a protracted battle with only so much achievable from the air alone. Two bombs were finally dropped on Thursday.

A moral price, however, is being paid at home, as the government introduces controversial measures to counter the internal threat, both real and perceived.


Three tranches of anti-terror laws are in train, providing new powers for security agencies and police, and severe penalties for acts  that before now were not even offences.  They deal with updated powers for ASIO, tough new restrictions around foreign fighters, and the retention and use of so-called meta-data.

Few would argue with Tony Abbott's proposition that the primary responsibility of government is to defend its people and keep them safe. But a clear and present danger arises if pursuing this rReesponsibility is done so singularly that it overrides other fundamental imperatives such as maintaining pluralism, protecting basic freedoms, and guaranteeing universal human rights.

Signs of imbalance are mounting. Illiberalism is probably the natural corollary of war. On Wednesday morning for example, Abbott went as far as apologising to the conservative radio shock jock Alan Jones and his like-minded audience, for not having moved earlier to curb freedom of association and thought among those who oppose the US-led mission in Iraq/Syria.

His target was the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation which, let's be frank, holds extreme views most people would deem antithetical to Australian traditions and interests. Jones told Abbott that the group was planning a forum in western Sydney on the weekend titled "The War to End a Blessed Revolution" and would be bringing in an international speaker for the purpose.

"Are you, before Friday, as Prime Minister of Australia going to proscribe this movement? That is, put them outside the protection of the law, reject them as dangerous and exile them?" he said. His naive overstating of prime ministerial authority aside, Jones' outrage would doubtless have been shared by many of his listeners. That was certainly Abbott's view. 

"Alan, I understand your frustration and anger and I'm frustrated and angry myself," the prime minister said.  People should not be allowed into the country to spruik their poisonous views, he said. "I am sorry we haven't red-carded these hate preachers before but it will happen and it will happen quickly."

Abbott is no fool and knew full well that the power to restrict entry already exists. The government can, and has previously denied visas on character grounds or on suspicion of a visitor's intentions to cause harm or social division.  Could  he have another motive? Perhaps to build popular support for other new powers currently before the parliament? Powers which would not just ban Hizb ut-Tahrir and potentially other groups, but would make membership illegal and could see people jailed for simply saying objectionable things?

There will also be severe custodial penalties for journalists revealing anything about a "special intelligence operation" as designated indefinitely, and a reversal of the onus of proof for people returning from certain prescribed countries or regions.

Legal expert Professor George Williams says it's amazing how quickly the government has shifted from the free-speech bias it was pushing as justification for watering down the section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, to advocating extended jail terms for stating different views or for journalists simply doing their work.

One of surprisingly few true liberals in the parliament, David Leyonhjelm, is also worried about where all of this is leading. Like Hizb ut-Tahrir, Leyonhjelm thinks the war is wrong, although not for the same reason. He argues that the Australian public "has been scared into believing that this somehow relates to their safety at home". 

"I don't think that's the case," the senator told Fairfax Media. Both sides of politics disagree with him. He says, incidentally, that the war will also take longer than intended:"It's going to be expensive and we will withdraw due to frustration, not due to military success."

Leyonhjelm should not be dismissed lightly. He was the first to warn that proposed anti-terror laws had opened the way for security agents to engage in torture with impunity. His objections were first scoffed at as "absolute rubbish" by Attorney General George Brandis before it was realised they stacked up, forcing amendments.

All of this  would have been politically unviable outside  the framework of a national security threat. Underpinning much of the cynicism is the suspicion that if governments don't actually like wars, they tend to hate them less than the rest of us. There is an all-too-convenient link between the perception of a threat, and voter support for the incumbent. There's no denying it is there.

When John Howard joined the coalition of the willing in announcing a troop deployment on March 18, 2003, his numbers improved immediately. Within one week Newspoll reportedly showed a five-point jump in the Liberal primary vote to 41 per cent and the Labor primary dropping by three, to 34 per cent.

Howard's own numbers rebounded even more strongly, with his approval shooting up by eight points, to 56 per cent, and his disapproval dropping by the same amount to 35 per cent. Even more striking was a nine-point leap in his preferred prime minister rating, to lead Simon Crean 60 to 19 per cent.

It is an old refrain but no less true today than at any other time: democracy cannot be strengthened by being narrowed and restricted.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.

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