Is the war on terror a “war” — the kind of war that justifies the use of special powers to keep the country safe? If it is, then yesterday’s control order on the activities of Joseph Thomas makes perfect sense.

But if Australia is not at war, the use of special “wartime” powers becomes more problematic. And if you don’t think yesterday’s control order was based on special powers — an order issued by the Federal Magistrates’ Court after a hearing in which Thomas was not represented — read this chunk of it:

Schedule 2: summary of the grounds on which this Order is made

1. Mr Thomas has admitted that he trained with al Qaeda in 2001. Al Qaeda is a listed terrorist organisation under section 4A of the Criminal Code Regulations 2002, made under the Criminal Code Act 1995. Mr Thomas also admitted that while at the al Qaeda training camp he undertook weapons training, including the use of explosives and learned how to assemble and shoot various automatic weapons.

2. There are good reasons to believe that given Mr Thomas has received training with al Qaeda he is now an available resource that can be tapped into to commit terrorist acts on behalf of al Qaeda or related terrorist cells. Training has provided Mr Thomas with the capability to execute or assist with the execution directly or indirectly of any terrorist acts.

3. Mr Thomas is vulnerable. Mr Thomas may be susceptible to the views and beliefs of persons who will nurture him during his reintegration into the community. Mr Thomas’s links with extremists such as Abu Bakir Bashir, some of which are through his wife, may expose and exploit Mr Thomas’s vulnerabilities.

4. Furthermore, the mere fact that Mr Thomas has trained in al Qaeda training camps, and associated with senior al Qaeda figures, in Afghanistan is attractive to aspirant extremists who will seek out his skills and experiences to guide them in achieving their potentially extremist objectives.

5. The controls set out in this interim control order statement will protect the public and substantially assist in preventing a terrorist act. Without these controls, Mr Thomas’s knowledge and skills could provide a potential resource for the planning or preparation of a terrorist act.

It’s obvious the control order is a breach of Jack Thomas’s civil liberties. It’s obvious the federal police could have used other means to keep Thomas under constant surveillance (including phone taps) to ensure he didn’t commit a terrorist act.

What is not yet obvious is whether the federal government’s use of special powers was made to deliver a political statement. And what is not yet obvious is whether the abandonment of peacetime civil liberties can be justified by this “war”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey