Terror tactics

John Howard, the state premiers and the federal ALP are playing politics with terrorism, giving rise to little public confidence that a forthcoming summit on new measures against terrorism will strike the right balance between defence of the community and the protection of individual rights. Indeed, both the Prime Minister and the premiers are showing impatience with civil liberties arguments, implicitly suggesting that the risks are now so great that such considerations have to be cast aside. They may be right, and will certainly be  so if, or when, a terrorist incident occurs. But they have advanced little evidence to suggest that draconian measures offer much in the way of extra protection, and, given their records in national security matters, none deserve to be taken on trust.

The summit—proposed by the premiers but embraced by the Prime Minister so as to suggest that it was his initiative—involves both sides attempting to position themselves as concerned about terrorism and willing to take all measures necessary to nip it in the bud. Labor premiers, and Labor politicians, including the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, are determined that they will not be wedged by the Prime Minister on this issue, whether by suggestions that they are ‘soft’ on terrorism, or obsessed by civil liberties balances, or perhaps because of their lack of enthusiasm for Australia’s role in Iraq they ought not be trusted with the protection of members of the community against terrorist attacks. In short, they are trying to manoeuvre to Howard’s right, making him, his Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, and the already large apparatus of the security state look as if they are not doing enough, nor taking the threat seriously enough, or are handicapping police and security services.

This political calculus means that there may be no one at the summit asking for evidence of an increased threat, or for proof of a lack of existing powers to respond adequately. Further, what evidence is there to suggest that the problems can be addressed by more restrictions on freedom of speech, harsher penalties for terrorists and those who use seditious language, or longer and more arbitrary periods of detention for terror suspects? What evidence is there to support the creation of a national identity card system, big brother surveillance and, perhaps, controls over freedom of movement in the community?

Such measures may make the Government look firm and determined, and put sceptics at the moral disadvantage of seeming to be less concerned about the protection of human life than of individual liberty.

ut more effective action against terrorists, if required, does not necessarily involve more repression of liberties, or preventing people going about their daily business. It does invite questions as to whether terrorists may be seen to win when they cause so much disruption to ordinary life. Some of the measures being proposed seem designed only for public-relations effect. Is there any evidence whatsoever that terrorists in Britain, Europe or the United States (a good proportion apparently prepared to give their lives for their cause) are deterred, or would be deterred, by stiffer penalties? Some measures seem only to create an impression of responsive government even when they have little practical effect, least of all against determined people whose modus operandi involves low-tech weapons in public places, rather than sophisticated technology in high-security areas.

Increased powers vested in police and security authorities may have a counter-productive effect, driving activities further underground and making them more difficult to detect. Such measures may accentuate a sense of martyrdom and righteous purpose among potential terror recruits, and subject Australia’s Muslims to a sense of siege, such that it may unite against its critics rather than a tiny proportion of hotheads in the community.

Nor can it be said that government is operating in a legal vacuum. Since 11 September 2001, governments have vested themselves with wide and draconian powers. There has been a massive increase in expenditure on general security, on recruitment of people with security functions, and on security barriers. Some of the extraordinary powers, including those of compulsory detention, compulsory question and the exercise of legal restraints upon the freedom of the press to report, have been exercised. Very little has emerged to indicate why these powers are now thought inadequate, or to show how security agencies might have done an even better job with further powers.

The problem is compounded by a lack of obvious checks and balances in the measures already employed. Further, some of the draconian powers already available are under the effective control of politicians who have shown a willingness to use those powers for political purposes, and with indifference to ordinary human rights. A critical figure in the equation, for example, is supposed to be the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, a man whose record over refugee rights, or the rights of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, does little to inspire confidence in his judicial qualities or capacity to balance human rights against the safety of the state.

Others in the equation have histories of constructing intelligence analyses to suit their political masters, or of actively misleading the Australian people about the intelligence available to government. Is the community ready to give even wider power to people so unwilling to be held accountable for their actions? Indeed, should the community wonder whether there is in operation active media management on the part of government to panic the community into consenting? And not just federal government, alas, but state governments as well? 

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of The Canberra Times.


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