Gerard Henderson has written some excellent, thoughtful columns over the past few weeks on the terror laws debate. He says:
“Civil liberties lawyers defend clients. Journalists report society.
Elected politicians are expected to make decisions that affect the
safety of citizens. Today no prime minister or minister is likely to
reject formal advice to increase counter-terrorism measures – if only
because they do not want to be held responsible if valuable advice is
dismissed and an attack takes place.”

It’s a question of
balance. “In times of hostilities, civil liberties in democracies are
invariably constricted,” Henderson says. But where does the onus of
proof lie? What will these laws do to the way Australians exercise
their right to participate in public political conversation?

ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope has done a public service by making the draft bills available to the public. Michelle Grattan summed up the situation
neatly yesterday: “It was an exquisite prick of the hubris balloon.
Less than 24 hours after the Howard Government insisted a Senate
inquiry into its sweeping anti-terrorism legislation would be confined
to a week – less in real parliamentary time – it was infuriated by the
pre-emptive release of the draft bill.”

These are issues that need to be debated – particularly since the Howard Government does not deserve the benefit of the doubt.

There’s a tender out
at the moment to provide DIMIA with English language teaching for
overseas officials. Perhaps the departmental droogs should learn a few
expressions themselves first – like “I am an Australian resident.” It’s
surely a higher priority for our own Immigration officers to learn
ethical and honest behaviour.

As Grattan says “It’s easy for
critics to argue that opponents of the anti-terrorism laws are
exaggerating their misuse. This overlooks history and human nature.
This Government’s treatment of asylum seekers, and its patent disregard
for the rights of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib do not encourage giving
it the benefit of the doubt.”

Neither does the legislation.
Individuals wrongly detained under its provisions are not allowed to
talk about their experiences. They face – wait for it – seven years
imprisonment if they say they’ve been locked up incorrectly.

The
would-be Prime Minister, Peter Costello, buckets backbenchers when they
depart from the script and offer policy ideas – even though that’s
their job. This is a Government that is manic about control. After
Alvarez, after Rau, can we trust this government with our liberties?

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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