CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Security nightmare for Australian authorities
, July 21, 2007
The recent terror scare may prompt a government review of Australia's immigration policies.The discovery of a possible al-Qaeda cell among doctors on the Gold Coast has created a new level of concern inside security agencies and could well prompt a Howard Government re-think about Australia's immigration policies.
The episode has created turmoil inside the Government, virtually on the eve of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting in Sydney.
The APEC meeting in September will be the largest security challenge in Australia's history, with the expected arrival of US President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It now appears certain that ASIO and the Australian Federal Police were caught out by the emergence of a possible al-Qaeda cell on the Gold Coast.
A "possible" cell because it is still not clear what links the arrested doctor Mohamed Haneef had to the British bomb-plotters.
The 27-year-old doctor was held without charge under federal counter-terrorism powers following his arrest at Brisbane airport on July 2.Terror cell
The Indian-born Muslim was being questioned about his alleged connections with a terror cell in Britain, after he tried to leave Australia with a one-way ticket to Malaysia.
Agencies used the new powers introduced by the Howard Government to question him over the failed bomb attacks outside a London nightclub and at Glasgow airport.
Regardless of whether Dr Haneef is guilty or innocent, or whether he has any connections with extremists, the episode takes Islamic terror fears to a new level.
Al-Qaeda is known to have been recruiting medical and engineering students over many years.
Unlike the angry underclass of uneducated Muslims who are typically recruited by al-Qaeda operatives, these young men are professionals, working in well-paid jobs, and who have a bright future.
They would be welcomed by any country to which they choose to emigrate - including, it seems, Australia.
Yet authorities appear to have discounted the potential of such groups to plan attacks.
The fact that Australian citizens are now being targeted by potential terrorists is a major political concern.
The idea that doctors who take the Hippocratic Oath "never to deliberately harm anyone for anyone else's interests" are plotting to kill and maim hundreds of innocent citizens sends a chilling message.
Almost half of Australia's doctors were trained overseas, and hospitals continue to recruit outside Australia because of the acute shortage of medical professionals.
It appears that Dr Haneef was brought into Australia under the Howard Government's controversial 457 visa, designed to import professionals and tradesmen in order to relieve critical skills shortages.
The initial response from the Howard Government has been to spend $50 million to fast-track a new border-security system.
The new system will enable ASIO and the Department of Immigration to integrate separate databases on visa applicants and extend screening to include analysis of visitors' travel and other movements and their financial records.
Last year ASIO blocked about a dozen people from coming to Australia.
Considering the number of tourists, business people and students who come to Australia each year, this appears to be a miniscule number, but ASIO by law has to be very careful and deliberate about its undertakings.
The Howard Government has to deal with the immediate issues of security, particularly leading up to the APEC meeting.
But it also has to take a fundamental look at Australia's immigration system - taking a much tougher look at who comes here on both a short-term and long-term basis.
If Kevin Rudd succeeds at the coming poll, he will have to face the same question.
One of the defining quotes of the Howard era was the Prime Minister's 2001 election pledge: "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."
In terms of the current session of Parliament, it is late in the day, and a radical about-turn on immigration laws could appear like an election stunt.
However, the fundamental role of any government must be to defend the security of its citizens.