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Government chipping away at our liberties

  • 29 May 2015

One of the sharpest thinkers behind the drafting of the US Constitution was James Madison. His warnings about the encroachments of government power are prescient.

'I believe,' he asserted before delegates at the Virginia Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution in 1788, 'there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.'

This points to the situation Australia finds itself in. There have been no violent usurpations. There has been no coup. There have been no acts of massive violence.

But data retention laws have been passed. National security legislation protecting ASIO from all operations short of murder while punishing the disclosure of material on secret intelligence operations has been enacted. Hundreds of police have been deployed in order to arrest a few teenagers. The stripping of citizenship of dual nationals is on the books. The noose around freedom, it would seem, is tightening.

Now, Australia has a newly appointed position – that of a counter-terrorism chief. It bears striking resemblance to moves made in the US to reflect the post-9/11 world, those involving the creation of such Orwellian departments as the Office of Homeland Security. New, upturned security environments require dramatic administrative responses – so we are told.

The language of a counter terrorism chief sounds like surfeit bureaucracy, an unnecessary encrustation on the security state. Australia has policed and combated internal threats for decades, treating such matters as issues, not of dramatic radicalisation, but of ordinary crime dealt with under conventional laws. This was particularly the case in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw a flurry of anti-Yugoslav activity at the hands of Croat nationalists, some of whom did have Australian citizenship.

It has fallen to the former ambassador to Iran and Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, to fill the boots of a position that will coordinate counter-terrorism efforts. 'There are many different departments, many different agencies,' explained Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, 'and we want to ensure that there’s a completely coordinated approach and that nothing slips through the cracks.'

Absolute security, the minister fails to understand, entails a form of corrosive despotism. Such cracks tend to be squires to the protection of liberties. Instead, Prime Minister Tony Abbott insists on a form of reactive evolution 'to meet an evolving terror threat'.

In the background to the announcement of this new counter-terrorist position has been the ongoing inquest into the Lindt