Op-Ed: Liberties lost in War on Terror by Amir Butler Print E-mail
Friday, 27 August 2004


If our war with terrorists is a war being fought to protect our freedom then we have already lost.

We were not defeated on the sandy battlefields of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan or even in the nightclubs of Bali.


Rather, our defeat came when our freedoms were traded by those we elected to protect them.

In the past two years, 18 terrorism-related Bills have been passed as law; many of which go further than even the much maligned Patriot Act in broadening and extending the powers of our Government.

However, for most Australians, the only visible indication of our Government's increased concern for terrorism has been a fridge magnet advising us to "be alert, not alarmed".


With good reason, democracies invest the power of detention in their police forces and make them subject to controls ensuring transparency and accountability.


The power to detain citizens has now been extended to ASIO, an organisation that, by its very definition, must operate in secrecy.


Australian citizens can be detained for up to seven days without charge and without any suspicion of having committed a crime.


While detained, you have no right to remain silent; and while free, you have no right to talk about your experiences.


According to the legislation, you can go to jail for five years simply for mentioning even that a warrant was issued, that you were detained, or any other aspect deemed "operational".


THIS raises important questions for the media -- the fourth estate of the modern polity -- whose probing and reporting of government actions is crucial to our democracy.


It might be argued that the only people who need worry about such laws are those with reason to worry.

However, it should concern all Australians that the definition of terrorism remains vague and, with the power to declare organisations as "terrorist" invested with the Attorney-General, there is a risk that the application of our anti-terror laws is subject to political manipulation.


It is entirely likely that whichever government is in power will label groups as terrorist or overlook them depending on whether the cause to which the group subscribes is inimical to the government's interests of the moment.


For this reason, if today's laws were applied yesterday, then both Fretilin and the African National Congress would have been considered terrorist organisations; with those many Australians who lent support to the East Timor independence movement and the anti-apartheid movement potential criminals under these laws.


The Government has introduced a further Bill to extend the legislation to include "consorting laws" that make illegal the association, on two or more occasions, with members, promoters or directors of organisations that are deemed as "terrorist".


Such laws impose guilt by association and infringe on the freedom of political association. They would make criminals of many innocent Australians who support causes abroad that our Government may judge, using its ill-defined and heavily politicised definition of terrorism, to be illegal.


For instance, Australians who involved themselves in fundraising for ambulances in Tamil regions of Sri Lanka may one day find themselves charged with aiding terrorism, as might Australians supporting the West Papuan independence movement.


Disturbingly, the Government has not informed people of their rights or responsibilities under these laws.

For this reason, a booklet was launched last week by Justice John Dowd, a highly respected Supreme Court judge and former attorney-general, explaining people's rights under the new laws.


It is a sad indictment on the complexities of the new regime that it took some 37 pages to explain the laws in simple terms.


The problem is not that our Government has sought to better protect our nation from terrorism or that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies would accept more powers, rather that so many rights have been traded for these powers -- the right to silence, the right to not be detained without charge, the right to be able to speak about one's experiences, the right to transparent government, and the right to freedom of political association.


FOLLOWING the outbreak of World War II, a wise man noted that, "the greatest tragedy that could overcome a country would be for it to fight a successful war in defence of liberty and to lose its own liberty in the process".


In one of history's many ironies, that wise man was Prime Minister Menzies, the founder of the Australian Liberal Party.


As Prime Minister Howard stands at the precipice of a new war, he would be wise to remember the caution of his predecessor.


Amir Butler

Herald Sun, 24 August 2004



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