EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
No need for alarm over new anti-terror laws
, June 20, 2015
The Prime Minister’s attempt to toughen Australia’s anti-terrorism laws to revoke the citizenship of people either engaging in or advocating terrorism reflects the government’s concern about the radicalisation of some young Muslims who are being recruited by Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Leaks from Cabinet conveyed deep divisions in Cabinet on the issue, with Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull particularly strongly opposed to revoking citizenship.
Australia already has a battery of counter-terrorism laws designed to prevent terrorist attacks in Australia, limit advocacy of extremist causes and prevent Australians participating in overseas conflicts such as those in the Middle East.
Since the late 1970s, Australia has had laws which make participation in military operations designed to overthrow a foreign government a criminal offence in Australia.
Following the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 – which took some 3,000 lives – Islamist extremists have perpetrated many terrorist attacks throughout the Western world designed to create fear and alarm among the population, to divide Muslims from the local community and to induce Western governments to abandon the Middle East.
The cost of countering terrorism has been staggering, and includes enhanced airline security, expanded electronic and physical surveillance of suspects, military operations in the Middle East, anti-radicalisation programs among susceptible parts of the various Muslim communities, and many other measures.
Despite this, a small but increasing number of young Australians has been leaving this country to join IS’ war to conquer Syria and Iraq.
Last September, the official terror threat level in Australia was raised to “high”. Since then, there have been eight counter-terrorism operations with 23 people arrested.
Last December, an Islamist extremist, Man Haron Monis, seized control of the Lindt Café in Sydney, taking about 20 hostages. The siege ended when police stormed the café, in the course of which Monis and two of his hostages were killed.
Alarming though this event was, Australia remains a very safe place, and the likelihood of Australians being caught up in a terrorist attack is far less than being assaulted in the street or involved in a motor accident.
For security services, anticipating organised terrorist attacks is the highest priority, but there are also “lone wolves” living in the community, radicalised by television reports or internet websites, who are capable of launching attacks.
In many cases, family members and Muslim believers have asked Australian police or security agencies to help prevent the descent into radicalisation.
Police and security agencies have several methods of dealing with potential terrorists. Usually the police warn a person in danger of being recruited of the risks they run. If a person is involved in advocacy or threatening others, they can face criminal charges.
In extreme cases, the federal government may apply to the court for a control order to avert a terrorist attack, or to control the activities of a person who has trained with a declared terrorist organisation, engaged in hostile activity in a foreign country, or engaged in a terrorist act in Australia or overseas.
Very few such orders have ever been issued. In 2013–14, for example, none were issued.
The government’s latest move to remove dual citizenship from terrorists seems to arise from the belief that existing laws are not preventing young people being recruited into terrorist organisations, and from reports that some Australians who have gone to Syria to fight for Islamic State want to return to Australia.
In relation to the former, there is no evidence that removing dual citizenship will affect the decision by young people to join a terrorist organisation. As to people wanting to return to Australia after fighting in Syria, they already face charges of breaching the criminal code, and face the possibility of up to life imprisonment. Those who recruit others face up to 25 years in prison.
The latest proposal has been criticised on several grounds. The strongest criticism is that it will be administered by the Department of Immigration, rather than by the courts.
Many people are not aware that the minister for immigration already has the power to revoke citizenship in certain circumstances, which include commission of a serious criminal offence. In other words, the power to revoke citizenship already exists under the Australian Citizenship Act.
However, as removal of citizenship involves removing the legal protections which accompany citizenship, it is entirely reasonable that it should be determined by the legal system rather than by public servants.
Any proposal to amend the law will have to go through the Senate, which will subject the legislation to detailed scrutiny. There is no need for alarm about the government’s latest proposal.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.