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Dangerous practice

After the deplorable Bali bombings, the deportation of American peace activist Scott Parkin may seem trivial. But both events invite us to ask what kind of an Australia we want.

The publicly verifiable facts of the case are clear. Mr Parkin was visiting Australia speaking on non-violent protest. He is an opponent of the war on Iraq, which the Australian Government supports. His activities do not seem to have concerned authorities in the United States. He was arrested, detained, deported and charged for costs after an ASIO report that evidently satisfied the Government and the Leader of the Opposition. His lawyers have appealed against the decision, and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security is reviewing the case.

The judgment made by ASIO and the grounds for it are not clear, even though they led to Mr Parkin’s deportation and affect his reputation and his future ability to travel freely. But although the grounds may not be made public, a version has been leaked.

After brutal bombings it may be necessary or excusable for governments to harm people without disclosing the grounds. But it is a dangerous practice because such measures erode the values that they profess to defend.

The development of national security states usually begins when they identify a group of dangerous people, of terrorists. They then build resources for identifying terrorists and their sympathisers. The list of those under surveillance and considered to be dangerous inevitably grows. It comes to include those who are opposed to government policy.

Having identified so many enemies of the state, governments further restrict personal liberty and due process. Since the information on which they act is privileged, they then provide misinformation.

This process can be studied in South Africa after it turned to apartheid. Its excesses always become patent when history turns. The defects, malice and absurdities of intelligence assessments become public. But that is small consolation to those whose lives have been damaged. Nor does it heal the shame with which citizens later gaze on their nation’s conduct.

In Australia, we may believe that it could never come to this. But the treatment of asylum seekers by successive governments shows that truth, human dignity and decency are expendable when they stand in the way of executive will.

As we reflect on what happened in Bali, the Parkin affair reminds us that, like bombs, arbitrary powers assumed in the name of national security can threaten our identity.    

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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