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Where’s the justification for the sudden rush for spy powers?

The government has suddenly lurched forward on national security with a huge package of reforms that strengthen our worst anti-terrorism laws without justification.

So we’re now in the midst of a full-blown terrorism panic, with another assault on basic freedoms and more money thrown at security agencies, all justified on the basis of ISIS — a gift that has kept on giving to advocates of the War on Terror from the moment they emerged in Iraq and jumpstarted the long-dead hearts of neocons.

The government’s announcement yesterday constitutes a list of deeply concerning proposals beyond its confirmation of a data retention scheme. They include:

  • a $630 million increase in intelligence agency, AFP and Customs funding over four years;
  • expanding terror laws to make advocacy of terrorism in general an offence (Crikey discussed the problems with this last week);
  • extending current draconian ASIO questioning and detention powers beyond their sunset data of 2016;
  • strengthening and extending the AFP’s control orders and preventive detention powers;
  • a new crime of travelling to a designated area where terrorism is occurring, with the onus of proof reversed for those claiming they have a legitimate purpose; and
  • new powers to suspend passports.

The proposals relating to passports — and we’ve yet to see the legislative detail — are consistent with the recommendations of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Bret Walker SC in his final report in March this year. The new offence of travelling to a designated region is also intended to address the concerns Walker raised in March about the potential threat posed by Australians becoming radicalised and trained in conflict zones. Others are explicitly contrary to Walker’s recommendations. In Walker’s 2012 report he concluded that “control orders in their present form are not effective, not appropriate and not necessary” and that “preventative detention orders are not effective, not appropriate and not necessary. They should simply be abolished.” Instead, the government proposes to strengthen and extend them.

The concept of designating regions as no-go zones of course has a particular piquancy at the moment. Australians are still permitted to fight for national armies, so going to Israel and joining the Israel Defence Forces to help level Gaza is fine, but joining the Syrian rebels fighting the monstrous regime of Bashar al-Assad will become a crime, even though the United States is desperately pumping arms and ammunition into moderate rebel elements inside Syria. Indeed, under the phrasing used by the Prime Minister yesterday, an Australian could fight for Assad, but not against him.

The $630 million increase over four years is also staggering in scope. To give an indication of its size, the entire ASIO budget this year is $600 million. Plainly, the age of entitlement continues for security institutions — they have been given what they requested, the Prime Minister said yesterday.

While the passport changes have a strong policy rationale from Walker — although the government has proven eager to use its current powers to prevent a whistleblower leaving Australia to provide evidence of spying on East Timor — and arguably the no-go zone proposal does as well, the justification for the remainder of the package is remarkably thin. Data retention (which overseas experience shows doesn’t work anyway) will have no effect on the threat of potential terrorists returning from conflict zones, since they can be targeted under the existing wide range of interception powers that agencies already have to target suspects for wiretapping and data retention orders (agencies have an existing power to request telcos and ISPs to retain data associated with an individual account). And as Abbott himself insisted on stressing yesterday, “the terrorist threat here in this country has not changed”, and yet some of the most draconian aspects of the Howard government’s counter-terrorism laws will be extended and strengthened, a new restriction on free speech will be established and $630 million will be wasted padding the budgets of security agencies.

Imagine how many lives could be saved if $630 million were directed at prevention, research or treatment of the lengthy list of diseases — starting with shingles and going on upwards — that claim more Australian lives every year than the entire death toll from terrorist attacks in Australian history? How many road fatalities could be prevented by directing that sort of money to accident black spots? As Crikey has explained in detail previously, the vast expenditure associated with the War on Terror does virtually nothing to increase our safety, while depriving areas where that spending could make a real difference in saving lives.

From spending the first half of the year studiously ignoring national security issues despite the report from the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security last year (of which Attorney-General Brandis was then a member) and Walker’s reports, the government has lurched into overdrive, looking to hustle through not one, not two but three sets of legislation further strengthening the role of security institutions at the expense of taxpayers and individual rights. It’s the Howard years all over again — only this time, there’s no actual excuse for the rush, only the exploitation of nebulous fears about “Aussie jihadis”.

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  • 1
    Arty Boxer
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    with the onus of proof reversed for those claiming they have a legitimate purpose

    So all this data collection is still expected to be insufficient for proof.

    Meanwhile, the terrorist group of today, if successful, will be the freedom fighters of tomorrow, and perhaps eventually the government.

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Maybe they can find Toady’s dog, Budget?

  • 3
    mikehilliard
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    We don’t need protection from terrorists as much as we need to be protected from this government.

  • 4
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s clear what the policy initiative is trying to address. It is the departure of young men to radicalised places such as ISIS controlled Syria / Iraq who then return to Australia and may commit terrorist acts similar to the London bombings.

    It is also utterly reasonable to resist American style surveillance capability to be brought into being in the name of protecting us.

    The comment on the legality of fighting for Assad and the illegality of fighting against him is interesting but when you look through the prism of security of Australian towns, a radicalised ISIS fighter presents a greater risk than fighting for Assad.

  • 5
    Steve777
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I am far from convinced of the need for these terrorism law changes and especially of the need to reverse the onus of proof in the case of someone travelling to trouble spots. These are some very basic and long standing legal rights we’re talking about. And terrorism, murder and sabotage and plotting to perpetrate any of these are already illegal.

    Compare and contrast with Australia’s response to the Cold War. We never legislated for draconian restrictions on communism. An attempt to ban the Communist Party was thrown out first by the High Court then by the Australian people. In contrast, a number of authoritarian regimes did promulgate draconian anti Communist laws, which they used to suppress dissidents and peaceful opposition.

    The Government needs to make its case. If Abbott and Brandis instead hector opponents, accusing anyone expressing doubts about the need for or wisdom of these proposed laws of being ‘friends of terrorists’, then we’ll know that the Government is trying to set up Jihadis as the new ‘Boats’.

  • 6
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Security is a growth industry it soaks up enormous amounts of $$$$, no questions asked. Unlike the communists of a past era, with whom we make big trade $$$$ nowadays; terrorists are a never ending enemy. What more can a unaccountable payola security industry ask for?

  • 7
    Vincent O'Donnell
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    It might, too, given heightened security concerns, be the right time to ask when ASIO is to get the keys to its new home? The transparency problem has been solved, the reflective glass windows don’t fall out any more. Or is that lovely Russell Hill site going to be redeveloped as housing for the poor as the Chinese government is believed to have got their hands on the plans of the building?

  • 8
    muruk
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    This is Abbott and his squad of goons continuing the weaseling of their version of the Gestapo into Australian society. What else should we expect from this of bunch of secretive neo-fascists, an update to the more modern Stasi perhaps? Then how long will it be before each one of us has to achieve a weekly quota of denunciations in order to avoid punishment?

  • 9
    extra
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    How long will it be before they come up against a situation where the old ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ meme is applicable? they must be praying that they never have to express a view on current events in Libya. Then again, what about expressing support for the actions of the Stern Gang, the Irgun and the Haganah in British Palestine?

  • 10
    The Pav
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Dear David Hand

    In the interests of fairness no doubt you will also condemn the number of Australians ( of all ages not just young men) who go to Israel to both serve in the army and also act as settlers in various disputed territories as this has been happening for many years

  • 11
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Hey Pav,
    We are talking about the safety of Australians in their homeland, not taking sides in a foreign war.

  • 12
    Balwyn Calling
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Where’s the justification for the sudden rush for spy powers?”

    Sticking with the Headline first, because there are a couple of points in this article that could be disputed with you, Bernard.

    The security rush is on in earnest at the moment and it’s global. This global security dragnet is not so much about corporate theft of our buying habits and inclinations but more about the compiling of personal data bases to see who fits where, spiritually, politically, economically and even emotionally in the coming NWO global kingdom.

    but joining the Syrian rebels fighting the monstrous regime of Bashar al-Assad will become a crime, even though the United States is desperately pumping arms and ammunition into moderate rebel elements inside Syria.”

    I admit to a bit confusion on this too. Must be a policy short circuit there somewhere and the Oz Govt foreign policy dept has n’t caught up yet. But if you think the Syrian Assad regime are the main culprits here then you, like Rundle, probably believe that the Russian Separatists and not the Ukranians shot down MH-17.

  • 13
    Arty Boxer
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the foreign terrorism is just an excuse for tightening the control on the domestic population. In which case we need a few volunteer workers labelled as fellow-travellers with terrorists.

  • 14
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    BERNARD KEANE: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am outraged at this, the latest attempt by the Coalition to turn this country into an autocracy, (and a Satrapy of the United States.)

    It is beyond belief that Tony Abbott and his mentally constipated hirelings should invoke these monstrous laws against the Australian people-all on the tenuous assumption that a homegrown Jihadist will attempt to blow up the MCG.
    Why, oh why are conservative governments so quick to resort to force? Could it be that their ideas are so shonky they need force to get the population to take them seriously?

    Would that Paul Keating would still be the leader of the opposition; these moves would never get past the starting line.

    I had better hand myself into police custody right away. When I travel I try to go to countries precisely when they are at war. This is because I know tourist numbers will have dropped off. During the last war in Egypt-two years ago-I had a wonderful time. Denuded of tourists I actually got to see some of the marvelous archeology of the Pharaohs.

    I fail to see why ASIO, or its equivalent, doesn’t already have the information they require.

  • 15
    j.oneill
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    If there is a discernible theme since September 2001 it is that governments in the western world are perfectly willing to use “terrorism” (usually generated by them) as the great catch-all phrase to justify ever encroaching upon our remaining few liberties. Between 1945 and 1991 the “Red Scare” fulfilled that role. When that meme collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions a new bogey man had to be found, or more accurately, created.

    The US experience shows the most of their home grown “terror plots” were created by the FBI, using malleable patsys. The so-called “underwear bomber” managed to get on a US bound plane in Amsterdam without a passport or visa. He was actually ushered through security, which just happens to be run by a company staffed with “ex” Shin Bet operatives.

    Books have been written about false flag attacks used to generate public fear and justify ever tighter restrictions on “left” “radical” or other groups that threaten the status quo. Google “Operation Gladio” for instructive examples.

    A more recent example is MH17. A torrent of hysteria and misinformation aimed at demonising Russia and Putin. When real evidence emerged, including very recently a report from OSCE investigators that MH17’s cockpit was riddled with machine gun fire, the investigation suddenly disappeared from the OZ media.

    Now the French have declared, allegedly sourced from Edward Snowden, that al-Baghdadi, the latest Islamic bogeyman who heads the ISIL terror group (trained in Jordan by the CIA according to Jordanian sources) is in reality none other than Simon Elliot, born of Jewish parents, and trained by Mossad.

    It is thanks to the internet that we are able to read material that doesn’t fit the government’s BS narrative, and that, I suspect, is the real reason for the latest barrage of proposed “security” legislation. At root it is nothing less than an attack on our ability to source alternative information. That is a threat our control freak governments (of both major persuasions) are not willing to tolerate.

  • 16
    Iskandar
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Those of us of a certain age have seen it all before. An inept, visionless government of half-baked mediocrities, not doing so well in the polls in its first term, and looking for an issue to deflect attention by appealing to, what else? Fear, fear, fear. The anti-communist hysteria of the 50’s to 70’s is too long ago now, but this is very like the script followed more recently by John Howard and his terror fridge magnets in 2001-2002. At the time I wrote on the package “Unwanted Junk Mail-Return to Sender” but Australia Post would not accept it so I left mine at the electoral office of Carmen Lawrence who had hoped to dump a pile of them on John Howard’s desk as an indication of the contempt that thinking people had for what he was doing. Howard had too thick a hide to get or care about the message, but had no reason to since the sheeple responded to his “be afraid, be very afraid” message and proceeded to elect him to four terms of dreadful governance. No doubt Abbott, under identical circumstances, is hoping that this old Tory tactic will work for him as it did for Howard. There is also of course the uncanny 911/MH17 parallelism, but that is another story.

  • 17
    Margaret Ludowyk
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Abbott has nothing else left in his toolkit - so now resorting to the politics of fear. Hell it worked for Howard in 2001. Let’s hope the Australian voters are not so gullible this time around

  • 18
    The Pav
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,

    As the report indicates and followed up by your comments a big part of this “security push” is the raqdicalisation of young Australian Males by ISIS.

    I find it curious that the same fear is not expressed for Australians being radicalised by extremists in Israel and lets face it they have their fair share of extremists that are as bad as anything that ISIS etc has.In fact Israeli extremists generally tend to get a free pass.

    Despite this nothing is said so the only conclusion I can find is that it is OK to belt Islamic extremists but not others.

    I am fairly sure Anders Brievik was not Islamic and have any Moslems been responsible for the continuing massacres in the US Yet Norway is part of NATO and we exchange military personnel with the USA. Strikes me that we have more to far from anybody BUT Islamic extremeists.

    For the record just in case somebody thinks I am anti Israel I actually support and admire Israel although it getting harder .

    This new carry on by Abbott is nothing more than a beat up of a fear dragon exploiting Australian xenophobia to distract from poor domestic performance….Typical of the type of conservatives of Abbotts ilk.

    I mean more Australians have been harmed by the Catholic Church than any terrorist

  • 19
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Pin the Tale on the Muslim”?

  • 20
    Arty Boxer
    Posted Thursday, 7 August 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    It is fortunate indeed that the Coalition believes in small government. Imagine what the security regime would look like under a “big” government.

  • 21
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 7 August 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Pav,
    It’s about assessing risk. Radicalised Islamic men are considered a greater risk to Australians than radicalised Israelis. As with any risk assessment, it may be wrong. A radical Israeli might return to Australia and shoot up Southern Cross station just like those Islamic terrorists did in Mumbai. if that happened, I’m confident that our security and intelligence forces would put a lot of focus on them as well.

    The Norwegians have thought a lot about how Brievik came to do his crime and if they could have prevented it, they would have.

    I can understand us being nervous about government powers going too far in the name of protecting us, which is what this article is about. What I just don’t get is why so many in this thread, including you, want to be politically correct when the clear and present danger is radicalised young Islamic men.

  • 22
    Itsarort
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Forget the politics, it’s all in the mathematics. The average person would ‘know’ at 3 degrees of separation, about 1.5 million people. Now, how many those people are potentially persons of concern? This is how Military Regimes and Police States have always subjugated their citizens.

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