Terrorism laws likely to be amended

May 15, 2002


On May 8, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee delivered its report on the package of "anti-terrorist" legislation currently before the Senate. The committee proposed a series of amendments to the legislation to "clarify" its intent and "remedy serious defects". The recommendations, however, fall far short of what is necessary to defend civil liberties.

Prime Minister John Howard told the press on May 8 that he will make some "sensible" amendments to the package after examining the report. The ALP has announced it will oppose the package unless it is amended, but has not specified what amendments it is seeking.

The Greens and the Democrats are opposing the current package outright. Greens Senator Bob Brown said on May 9 that he believed the current legislation was adequate. Senator Brian Greig, the sole Democrat on the Senate committee, in a dissenting report, stated the "Democrats would enthusiastically support balanced legislative measures to address any demonstrated deficiencies in Australian law in relation to terrorism", however, the present bills "are not balanced".

The committee's public hearings revealed almost unanimous opposition to the new laws among legal, religious and ethnic groups. More than 400 of the 431 submissions to the committee opposed the legislation. Those in support came almost exclusively from government agencies or departments.

The committee's report conceded that many protests, union actions and even some aid agency programs would fit within the legislation's definition of terrorism or treason.

State agencies supporting the legislation — including the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the federal attorney-general's office, all argued that such activities, while "technically" breaching the act, were unlikely to be prosecuted because of the "discretion" allowed to their officers.

The AFP representatives argued that safeguards of civil liberties "were enshrined in policing practice".

"[Police officers] will need to respect people's civil liberties and rights while interacting with them face-to-face", AFP international director Mark Walters told the committee. "Policing practice is governed formally and informally — formally by our commissioner's instructions and informally by being embedded within the police officer's training in terms of exercising their discretion."

Despite submissions from several Muslim and ethnic organisations detailing the racism embedded in current police practice, the committee gave some credence to the AFP's arguments. It proposed a fairly minor amendment to the definition of terrorism, taken from similar legislation introduced in the United States.

As well as the current provisions — which specify that a terrorist act is one which is carried out for political, ideological or religious purposes and involves serious damage, harm to people or disruption to an electronic system used for data storage and transmission, communications or transportation — the committee proposed specifying that the act must be "designed to influence government by undue intimidation or undue coercion or to unduly intimidate the public or a section of the public".

"This change will mean very little", Nick Everett, one of the organisers of Sydney's M1 protest, told Green Left Weekly. "Who's to say that the Coalition government won't argue that protests outside refugee detention centres calling for an end to mandatory detention are 'undue coercion' on it? Protesters could still be prosecuted."

The most significant of the seven recommendations is to remove entirely the section allowing the attorney-general to ban organisations. The bill allows an organisation to be banned, without the right of appeal, if the attorney-general decides that it "endangers the integrity or security of the commonwealth or another country". To be a member of, or to assist, a banned organisation is punishable by 25 years imprisonment.

While it is proposing to remove this power from the current package, the committee recommended that the attorney-general redraft it (to be brought to parliament at a later date) so that "integrity" is defined as territorial integrity, organisations can appeal through the courts, the attorney-general does not have complete control over the process and the term "assisting" is defined.

Everett, who is also a member of the Democratic Socialist Party, points out that, in supporting the "free Aceh" movement, "the DSP could easily be accused of undermining territorial integrity, as could pro-Tibet campaigners — or even Palestinian solidarity activists".

Under the bill, those accused of providing money or training to terrorists or possessing "things" associated with terrorist acts are assumed to have known that the activity or "thing" was connected to a terrorist act unless they can prove otherwise. The committee proposed restoring the burden of proof to the accuser.

The other recommendations are that warrants be required before ASIO agents can read private emails or short message service (SMS) dispatches, that financing a terrorist organisation is only illegal if that was the intent and that organisations whose assets are frozen are informed of this.

The committee did not review the ASIO amendment bill. This is being separately examined by a joint committee of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The bill will grant sweeping new powers to ASIO, including the right to indefinitely detain, incommunicado, people over the age of 10.

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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