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Philip Nitschke: my airport detention, for reasons unexplained

Euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke was detained and searched at Melbourne Airport yesterday and not told why. He writes for Crikey about the campaign against him.

In its 2010-11 annual report, then-Australian Customs CEO Michael Carmody explained the agency’s approach to conducting business reflected an “increasingly targeted approach”. Directing “our resources on high-risk people … as a part of the intelligence-led risk-based approach”, Carmody stated, is what Customs and border protection is all about. The “potential impacts”, he continued “[i]f we do not manage our responsibilities effectively … may negatively affect the Australian community”.

I couldn’t agree more.

As so it was that my wife and I were selected out of the queue of departing passengers at Tullamarine on Tuesday morning for what we were informed was a “cash search”. Did we lie on our departure card and were really carrying in excess of $10,000 with us? And were our mobile phones stolen goods? Well, no, not to our knowledge.

With a bare 15 minutes to go before boarding, we found ourselves in the detention waiting room. Don’t get me wrong; Fiona and I are quite familiar with the holding pens of various countries’ immigration services, such as London and Auckland. Until now, however, the Australian equivalent had escaped us. All that changed on Tuesday.

Into the austere interview room we went, CCTV mounted on the ceiling. The dirty carpet and grey walls were hardly a welcoming start to our long-awaited holiday. Out came the gloves of Officer Steve and into Fiona’s handbag he delved. My man-bag followed soon after, along with my carry-on roller case.

What section of the act allows you to go searching like this, my budding lawyer wife asked one officer. “The Customs Act,” came the reply. “Yes, of course”, continued Fiona, “but what section?”. Just the act was all the information we were given.

When one laptop, one iPad, one Kindle and two mobiles were neatly piled on the table — the only fruit Officer Steve’s search had borne — off the officers went. No written notice that our possessions were being acquired. And no explanation beyond the question “were our mobiles stolen?”.

After a fair bit more questioning from Fiona in regards to the role her laptop and Kindle played in determining the ownership status of our phones, the officers said the other devices were being scanned for kiddie porn.

As authors of the only Australian book to be banned in 35 years (The Peaceful Pill Handbook was banned on appeal by then-attorney-general Philip Ruddock in 2007), we were half expecting them to say “objectionable material”. After all, that was how I was last caught out, back in 2002.

Is this what Australia has come to? Subversion like this should cause the Customs service to hang its head in shame.”

Back then I was also going to the United States. But that time I was carrying with me some pieces of polypipe, which, if assembled in a certain way, could make a fairly efficient carbon monoxide generator. On that occasion I was leaving Australia to attend a right-to-die conference in San Diego; this time I was off to Mexico for a belated wedding anniversary holiday.

And besides, that incident 11 years ago appeared to be a one-off. Yes, the Howard government was in power, and yes, the Customs regulations had, seemingly, been recently changed just for me, making it an offence “absolutely to export a device designed or customised to be used by a person to commit suicide” (s3AA(1)) or a “document that instructs a person how to commit suicide using one of those devices” (s3AA(2)(c)).

As we sat in detention this week, we couldn’t help but think about the family of East Timor’s Finance Minister Emilia Pires, who were detained upon entering Australia in December. They too were searched for cash, and unlike us they didn’t have their phones returned. But the point seemed to be the same.

Arbitrary searches are one clear means to harass. In an era where civil liberties are being increasingly eroded, the need for reasonable suspicion, let alone reasonable belief, is disappearing. If the boys in Canberra don’t like you, they are all too willing to use the public service to do their dirty bidding for them.

In a 2011 profile piece in The Monthly on Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Nick Bryant described Morrison as a “devout Pentecostal”. While I’ve never had dealings with the man, Christianity is often a commonality among my enemies. And anyway, this directive could equally have come from any number within the Abbott cabinet — not least Eric Abetz or Kevin Andrews or Tony Abbott himself — all of whom have an intolerance for the message of choice that I advocate.

There is lots about Tuesday’s detention that irks me; I’ve not space to go into it here, other than to say the ombudsman will be hearing from me.

But one thing stands out. With the doors of QF93 about to close, we were handed our belongings back and told to get moving. When Fiona asked for the officers’ ID numbers or names, one “Officer Raelene” said she could locate the list but we would then miss our flight. Is that what we wanted? Hardly in the spirit of the act.

Is this what Australia has come to? Subversion like this should cause the Customs service to hang its head in shame.

13
  • 1
    The Hood
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone see Kevin Andrews at the airport at the time?

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the report, Philip.

  • 3
    thelorikeet
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Enlightening and properly scary. And maybe indicative of a pattern or trend as governments become increasingly intrusive and muscular in dealing with both dissent and with bad conduct.

    The NSW “crack down”; the Newman government’s absurd bikie and sex offender laws (the latter now declared unconstitutional); the Newman government’s authorisation of police not to wear name badges; the massive enlargement of police powers for G20; the Abbott government’s raids on lawyer’s offices during legal cases against the government; Morrison’s increasingly bizarre “cone of silence” amid very serious accusations; the militarisation of policing at State and Federal levels; the military take over of civilian activity under the guise of the Orwellian “Operation Sovereign Borders” … I’m sure other will have uneven longer catalog.

    And now the detention on seemingly spurious grounds of activists and voices of dissent coupled with a refusal to give basic rights to the individuals such as knowledge of the section of the Act and identity (indeed authority - quo warranto) of the allegedly empowered official. The tale you tell, Phillip, is alarming.

    Just why the public is so sanguine about the loss of liberty is very worrying indeed.

  • 4
    zut alors
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Next time you pass through Customs make sure you’re sporting a ‘Cory for the Senate’ badge. It may offer similar protection to garlic in deflecting vampires.

  • 5
    Yclept
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Well 1984 is just about here and the Mad Monk is only too happy to take us there!

  • 6
    rhwombat
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Fairly direct and blatant harassment Philip. I smell Rear-Admiral & CPO-General Scrotum (with, perhaps, a lingering scent of Opus Dei brand carbolic soap that Andrews shaves with), since Toady’s still in the pointy parts of France and Switzerland, AG Mr Toad the Librarian is busy bailing out Nauru, Standartenfuhrer Abetz remains locked in the cellar with the Poodle after the latter’s unfortunate accident on the school carpet, and Ms Julie is female and therefore not listened to by the Boys Brigade. Another badge of honour, though of an unusually snotty nature.

  • 7
    graybul
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    @ thelorikeet. Excellent comment! Nauru citizens’ were completely powerless at the hands of their ‘Masters’, internal and external. They lost both Judiciary and Constitutional protection overnight. Australian judicial protections “leak” away. Our public voice is, ‘sanguine’ about loss of liberty. Public Servants serve their Masters . . when they sense protection. No longer the Public! Our Armed Services, Customs, employed in turning back boats, are allegedly, so protected. As you say . . “Properly Scary”!

  • 8
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    As with the kerfuffle over NSA hoovering up everything, what does it matter what the Law allows? Authority will do what it always does, without rhyme or reason but it would not be possible if the foot soldiers had the slightest understanding of the Nuremberg principle.
    Dr Nitschke, I hope that you realise that your phone SIMs were downloaded and will now go into the database, for the “next time”.
    Until people take responsibility for their own action and act thereon, this sort of abuse will continue to expand.
    Oh, wait… the quiet life, “when they came for the ….” sorta thang?

  • 9
    Kevin_T
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Quote: “When Fiona asked for the officers’ ID numbers or names, one “Officer Raelene” said she could locate the list but we would then miss our flight. Is that what we wanted?

    That reply in itself would just about inspire me to miss the flight, and doing so would probably make them a bit uneasy about potential consequences if they were reported.

  • 10
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 22 January 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    You’re not related to an East Timorese parliamentarian too, are you by any chance….?

  • 11
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I think I detect the fine hand of the DLP in this. Is there any way Senator John (the blacksmith) Madigan would have known you were leaving on this flight? Otherwise I’d tend to go for Kevin Andrews who, like his master Tony Abbott, Jesuit trained.

  • 12
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Dr Nitschke would, like several thousand citizens at any given, be subject to an alert (1-5 levels, from Note Details to Armed Response)at passport control, inwards & outwards.

  • 13
    Ian
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    thelorikeet,

    Yes, we need to be worried, very, very worried; in fact we should do more than worry.

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