Australian Government passes new terror laws

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The Australia Federal Government has passed wide-ranging new counter-terrorism laws that civil opponents warned will disintegrate civil liberties. The federal parliament has agreed to laws aimed at stifling home-grown terrorists. The terrorism legislation was rushed through the Senate yesterday evening after the Government gagged debate on the bill.

The new laws enable police and intelligence agencies to detain suspects without charge for up to 14 days in solitary confinement. Authorities can also restrict and control movements of suspects, including fitting them with electronic tags for up to 12 months.

Prime Minister John Howard introduced the package after the July 2005 bombings in London. Federal Justice Minister Chris Ellison told the Senate the laws would give authorities the necessary tools to tackle terrorism, while being consistent with international human rights obligations.

John North, president of the Law Council of Australia, an outspoken critic of the package, said lawyers would monitor the government's use of its new powers. "We want governments to know that almost 50,000 lawyers will be watching closely to make sure the new laws are not implemented at the expense of our civil liberties," Mr North said. He also said in a letter addressed to Prime Minister John Howard that "The legal profession believes that the ramifications of these laws have the potential to be as terrifying as terrorism itself." This following a media campaign launched by the Law Council in newspapers vilifying the new legislation as "draconian".

The package, broadly supported by the opposition Labor Party, gives police tougher powers to stop, search and seize evidence from suspects and enables more close circuit television cameras to be used to monitor public places. The new legislation also updates sedition laws and allow greater use of security cameras.

The Australian Greens, the Democrats and the Law Council accuse the Labor Party of selling out civil rights by supporting the bill, which will give unprecedented powers to police and spy agencies. Australian Greens leader Bob Brown condemned the laws. "We are in a new period of McCarthyism and we need to know that, and understand it, and worry that this time it won't be turned around, that citizens, using a law like this, will be brought before courts for political reasons, not security reasons," he told parliament.

Following some amendments, the Commonwealth Ombudsman will be given more power to oversee detention, detainees will have greater access to relatives and police will need to satisfy a greater number of grounds to impose limits on who a suspect can contact. The Australian Law Reform Commission will review the sedition provisions next year.

Civil libertarians and people who oppose Australia's involvement in Iraq also have protested. The proposed laws are "horrific for journalists," senior Fairfax journalist David Marr said. "Firstly, there's a completely secret new regime of putting people in preventive detention — that's entirely secret," he said. "If we report it, if we report that people have gone into preventive detention, we're going to go individually to jail for five to seven years, something like that. Even if we report what happened to people in detention, we go to jail. "

Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission president John Von Doussa says the proposed counter-terrorism laws are the first step towards a police state. The legislation gives police extraordinary powers to detain people without charge, but does not set out means by which the application of those powers can be checked or appealed, he said.

Prime Minister John Howard rejects suggestions the Government acted in undue haste by pushing a range of striking new laws through parliament before Christmas, despite public outcry over inadequate scrutiny and the gagging of parliamentary debate on many of the bills.

Defence Minister, Senator Robert Hill says the government has a responsibility to protect Australians. "Out of the British bombing, we went back and looked at our laws. We believed that we needed further powers to protect Australians, said Mr Hill. "Obviously, we want to put them through as quickly as possible because we are addressing a terrorist threat."