CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Are new anti-terror laws good for Australia?
, September 24, 2005
Australian security agencies fear that Australia is overdue for a terrorist attack.Australia has so far been fortunate in having escaped a mainland terrorist strike in the four years since the official starting date of the war against terror, September 11, 2001.
There have been sporadic political dust-ups about whether Australia has become more of a terror target as a result of its decision to join the "Coalition of the Willing'' war in Iraq.
But no politician or security agency has dared to make any particular boasts or try to gain political capital out of Australia's success in staving off a local attack.
This is partly because we have already had our own attacks on Australia, albeit offshore - one in Bali orchestrated by Al-Qaeda offshoot, Jemaah Islamiah, which killed 88 Australians, and another outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta.Attack overdue
But the main reason for the reticence is that authorities are more or less certain that an onshore attack is overdue.
Whether this event occurs next month or in five years' time, only then will the political blame game occur about whether the Australian Government had done enough to protect its citizens and infrastructure from an attack.
At least 100 Australian citizens are known to have trained in Al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Many others have travelled overseas to study with radical Islamic organisations.
Thousands more young Australians have been indoctrinated by radical clerics or simply by reading material over the internet.
The extent of their networks and associations cannot be known.
Furthermore, Australian security organisations, like their American and British counterparts, were caught out badly by September 11 and have been desperately working to catch up on their severe deficiencies in languages and in understanding and penetrating the Islamic world.
The problem for the Government is that no amount of money or laws or police powers can actually prevent members of these groups perpetrating a terrorist attack.
Ultimately, the decision becomes a political one: To what extent does the Government allocate funding toward the fight against terror? How restrictive should its laws be? And what sacrifices to their personal liberty should citizens be required to make to guarantee their safety?
Prime Minister John Howard has just announced a new raft of measures to help agencies such as ASIO do their work, but has run straight into heavy opposition from human rights and civil libertarian groups.
At the same time, Mr Howard has been running a parallel public relations operation in which he has been seen to be "reaching out'' to Muslim groups, particularly the moderate clerics, and enlisting them in the fight against the Islamic radicals.
Under the proposed new laws, terror suspects could be locked away without charge for up to two weeks and, controversially, suspects would also be forced to wear electronic tracking devices for up to 12 months.
The most contentious measure will be a new régime of preventative detention - holding terror suspects without arrest or charge for up to a fortnight.
The laws are similar to those already introduced in the United Kingdom, and would be brought into force during terror alerts or following an attack.
Suspects would be held to stop further attacks or the destruction of evidence.
It would also be a new crime to leave luggage unattended anywhere near an airport.
Opposition Leader Kim Beazley has described the measures as a "half-developed plan'', but is unlikely to oppose them.
One of the major concerns about the new laws is that there is no time limit on them - unlike other wars, there is potentially no way of ever telling when the war on terror is over.
After some sustained criticism Mr Howard has hinted that he may be prepared to introduce a sunset clause on the legislation. There is also no way of gauging the effectiveness of the new laws by any independent body to check whether there is any abuse.Restrictions
The other concern is that the legislation constitutes the first restriction on human movement using technological devices by an Australian Government.
It was not without irony that, on the same day Mr Howard announced his proposed new anti-terror laws, Victorian Premier Steve Bracks announced the compulsory micro-chipping of every cat and dog in the state.
The public are likely to accept the latest restrictions on freedom, but the alarm bells must be beginning to sound.
And the worry is that, following a feared terrorist attack, there will be even more new and tougher laws and restrictions, without our ever knowing whether previous laws were effective or not.