Let’s hope Steve Bracks meant to say “cabinet solidarity” when he bagged ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope yesterday for breaching the “sovereignty of Cabinet”.

The terror laws debate is very much a matter of give and take – power in exchange for protection.

This
can be a very sore point. Enough politically active Australians
remember a time when security services and special branches kept
opening up files like a two-bit Stasi. They recall how public sector
and university appointments were often based on files that all too
often largely consisted of unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo, with a
fair bit of deliberate mischief making by informants added in – and how
reputations and careers were trashed in the process.

Geoffrey Barker took the pessimistic approach in The Financial Review
yesterday. He suggested that the terror laws and IR measures “suggest
the coalition wants to substantially alter the relationship between
citizens and the state, to create a more controlled and compliant
population, and to marginal political, economic and social dissent.”

He
reached the unfortunate conclusion “it is possible, perhaps likely,
that most Australians will care little about a national evolution
towards more authoritarian rule, particularly if the government creates
the illusion of security and the reality of affluence… With Labor
struggling to attract support, the prospect of one-party dominant
government under John Howard and his successors seems increasingly
likely. Consciously or otherwise, Australia seems to be emulating
aspects of countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia.”

Steve Lewis in The Australian today is more optimistic, but even he has a warning for the Government. Be candid, he says:

ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope should be applauded, not
condemned, for publishing a draft of the Howard Government’s
anti-terrorism legislation. It is the Government, operating in undue
secrecy, that is corrupting the parliamentary process.

These are
not incidental micro-reforms. They do much more than tweak existing
statutes. They will deliver unprecedented powers to the intelligence
and law enforcement agencies, allowing them to apprehend and track
suspected terrorists.

For heaven’s sake, jail terms of up to
seven years can be served on those who advocate causes linked to terror
attacks. It is critical they receive more than cursory examination by
the Senate. Instead of poking Stanhope in the chest, the Government
should agree to a decent parliamentary debate, as opposed to the
miserly time frame it has imposed.

Exactly. This is a
matter of trust. We have to be able to trust governments to exercise
power wisely to protect us – but they have to trust us enough to tell
us as much as possible about how they are seeking to do this.

The
threat of terror is bad enough. The threat of losing liberties in the
name of defending them is absolute “we had to destroy the village in
order to save it” stuff.

Peter Fray

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