Every now and then, the government tells us that the threat from
terrorism is special and unique, and the draconian powers used to fight
it will not spill over into other areas of life. Nobody much believes
them any more, and a disturbing story in this morning’s Australian shows why.
The federal justice department is supporting a move by the Australian
Crime Commission to inflict immediate and indefinite imprisonment on
people who refuse to answer its questions. The ACC already has
far-reaching coercive powers to pursue investigations, but at least it
cannot send people to jail without a proper trial in the Federal Court.
Now that limitation could be removed.
The story says the powers would be “based on contempt of court
provisions” (themselves a matter of some concern), but of course the
ACC is not a court; it’s an arm of the executive, not the judicial
power. Separation of powers, however, is an unfashionable doctrine in
Canberra, as the “anti-terrorism” legislation has demonstrated. For
good measure, the ACC also wants to be able to share any information it
gains with the private sector.
Not only are these powers bad in principle, there’s also no evidence
that they work. And it’s easy to see why not: crime-fighting is harder,
not easier, if you start by undermining the rule of law. If we have to
throw away the rule book in order to combat organised crime, why
bother? We’ll just end up with a gangster society in either case.
American strategy in Vietnam sometimes came down to “we had to destroy
the village in order to save it.” The justice department’s strategy of
“we have to destroy a law-governed society in order to save it” makes
equally little sense.