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;
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 Crikeyhas 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”.