He was summoned by ASIO, thrown in jail and kicked out of the
country. Scott Parkin felt the force of Australia's security
crackdown, and harsher measures are on the way. Marian Wilkinson
and David Marr report.
"Angela" called out of the blue, soon after Scott Parkin arrived
in Melbourne. Her message to the Texas peace activist was brief.
She was phoning from ASIO and wanted him to come in for an
interview. Would it affect his visa, Parkin wanted to know. Angela
wouldn't say. Was this a voluntary request? Voluntary, she replied.
Then, said Parkin, "I don't think I'll come and see you".
Parkin was shaken. The 36-year-old community college instructor,
who says he espouses the path of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther
King, had been travelling around Australia for months, giving
workshops on non-violent political activism. In Sydney late last
month he joined hundreds of anti-globalisation demonstrators
outside the Opera House, denouncing 300 of the world's top
executives at the Forbes Global CEO Conference. Among the
protesters were the Greens senator Kerry Nettle and one of her
staffers, Max Phillips. There were clashes, arrests and a trampled
The demonstrations made few front-page headlines, although
Parkin did appear on TV news. He also helped out with a bit of
street theatre, "The Coalition of the Billing", outside the Sydney
headquarters of Halliburton, a giant US contractor in Iraq.
Early this month Parkin left for Melbourne, where he was to run
another workshop at the Irene Warehouse in Brunswick. Then came the
phone call from ASIO. Parkin immediately contacted Iain Murray, a
local activist and fellow organiser for the workshop.
Murray was taken aback. Unlike some in the peace movement, he
was not prone to paranoia. There was no arrest warrant for Parkin
and Murray played down the call as "a minor bit of intimidation".
But Parkin asked him would he find himself in a prison cell if they
went ahead with the workshop?
"I doubt it," Murray recalls telling him. "It seemed like a
ludicrous concept." But, just in case, he gave Parkin the name of a
legal aid lawyer.
Then, last Saturday, Parkin was sitting in the Kaleidoscope Cafe
in Brunswick when 10 men walked in and confronted him. Shortly
after, Murray got a very different call from his US friend. "Iain,
I am calling to tell you I have been detained by the Australian
Federal Police and Immigration agents and I am at the Carlton West
A second message followed: "I've been told that a competent
Australian authority has assessed that I am a national security
risk and that I may be placed in mandatory detention."
Parkin's arrest, detention and removal from Australia made
headlines around the world.
No one in Government, including the Attorney-General, Philip
Ruddock, has suggested Parkin was threatening a terrorist attack,
mixing chemicals for a bomb or calling for jihad. But, apparently
on the strength of an ASIO report, the Government said Parkin was
engaged in "politically motivated violence". In ASIO's and
Ruddock's view, Parkin's activism had crossed the line between
political dissent and undermining national security.
But what troubles civil liberties lawyers, political activists,
the Greens and the Democrats is that the Government refused to tell
either Parkin or his lawyers how he crossed that line, or the basis
for their evidence. Ruddock strongly implied that to do so would
threaten intelligence sources and set a dangerous precedent.
When the Greens leader, Bob Brown, tried to move a Senate motion
this week, asking the Government to provide the information,
Ruddock castigated him: "Will his next suggestion be that ASIO make
public its threat assessments, effectively issuing instructions to
terrorists about how to exploit our vulnerabilities?"
Ruddock's message seemed to be: trust ASIO and don't challenge
the Government's judgement in this dangerous age. "There is no
indication ASIO is making a habit of recommending that alleged
peace activists be deported on a whim," he said.
What Parkin's lawyers, and other human rights lawyers, fear is
that no one will be allowed to test ASIO's assessments or the
minister's assurance. This week, it became clear that the raft of
counter-terrorism laws enacted since September 11, 2001, will make
it extremely difficult for Parkin to see the evidence against him,
even if his lawyers pursue the case through the Australian courts.
That is why political activists around Australia, from Greenpeace
to the Muslim Civil Rights Network, are watching the Parkin case
with some trepidation.
For the first time since those terrorist attacks in the US, a
harsh spotlight has been cast on Australia's counter-terrorism
laws. And it is becoming clearer that the laws have given ASIO and
the police far greater powers to decide who is a security threat.
At the same time, they have curbed the power of the courts to act
as a safeguard for those the security agencies label as a
Under the new legislation, a vast range of activities is
considered to be against the "national security interests" of
Australia. Those interests are described as "Australia's defence,
security, law enforcement interests" and its "international
relations". These, in turn, are defined as Australia's political,
military and economic relations not only with foreign governments
but with "foreign organisations", which could mean anything from
the World Trade Organisation to the Asia-Pacific Economic
This sweeping definition of national security is particularly
worrying to lawyers in light of the Parkin case. It is spelt out in
a little-known law called the National Security Information Act,
which was extended in June to cover not only criminal cases but all
Under that act, the Attorney-General can demand that information
be withheld from a court - and the accused and their lawyers - in
the interests of national security. The act compels the judge to
give greater weight to national security than to the
If Parkin's lawyers want to challenge his detention and removal
from Australia, they will most likely have to go to the Federal
Court. At that point, says Parkin's lawyer, Julian Burnside, the
Government could stymie the case.
He says Ruddock has the power under the act to "grant a
certificate which will have the practical effect of preventing
anyone from knowing what was in the ASIO assessment and thus
prevent him from being able to challenge its factual bases or the
conclusions drawn from the facts".
Earlier this year, civil rights lawyers and law professors from
around the country warned senators that if they extended the act to
civil cases, individual rights could be severely affected.
Among those expressing concern at the time was Australia's Human
Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. This week, its president,
John von Doussa, QC, said he found aspects of the law,
"[They] may very well have the effect of protecting incorrectly
made decisions. Perhaps more significantly, they have the potential
to deny people the right to an effective remedy for violations of
fundamental human rights."
Democrats and Greens were worried that the Parkin case was a
breach of basic human rights. As Natasha Stott Despoja put it: "I
do not want to live in a society where the lawyer defending the man
cannot even find out what his client is accused of, and the man
himself is not aware of why has has been detained, put in solitary
confinement, charged for it and is about to be deported."
But an unflinching Government won critical support from the
Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, after he received a confidential
ASIO briefing on the Parkin case. Brown was refused the briefing
and questions Beazley's ability to critically assess the ASIO
claims that Parkin's activism amounted to politically motivated
"He's not very experienced in community action and what's going
on out there, and I think he's just been foxed by ASIO," he says.
"In the absence of the Government making public its reasons for
arresting this man as a threat to the country, it has to be taken
as a political decision." Ruddock rejects that claim, saying the
Government does not oppose legitimate dissent. The ASIO Act is
supposed to protect such dissent. But, for Australia's human rights
lawyers, the Parkin case is an amber light.
The Government has proposed another round of counter-terrorism
laws in the wake of the London bombings. Ruddock and the Prime
Minister, John Howard, say they are vital to the fight against
terrorism. Howard will discuss the proposals with the premiers this
month, but he wants to push through the new laws by Christmas.
Among the proposals, which civil liberties groups describe as
draconian, are 12-month control orders, where terrorist suspects
can be fitted with tracking devices, and a demand that the Labor
states introduce 14-day detention without charge.
Robin Banks, from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney,
says, given the Parkin case, the premiers and the public should
examine the proposals carefully.
"Australians should ask themselves whether this Government and
the intelligence agencies it relies on so heavily should be
invested with further powers under the broad and ill-defined
justification of terrorist threats to Australia."
But Howard says Australia's counter-terrorism laws and the new
proposals strike the right balance: "I believe these measures do
provide a lot of extra protection, but they do not, given the
circumstances in which we live, unfairly restrict the rights of the
Marian Wilkinson and David Marr
Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 2005