John Howard’s extraordinary suspension of the rule of law in the Northern Territory should have the legal profession manning the barricades. But where are the Chief Justice of the Northern Territory, Brian Martin, the Northern Territory Law Society, the Northern Territory Bar Association, and even the national bodies — the Australian Bar Association and the Law Council of Australia? So far, nowhere to be seen or heard.

What is at stake in Mr Howard’s cynical Tampa 2 exercise is the potential for gross infringements of the rights of individuals. In effectively imposing martial law, Howard and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough, are giving law enforcement officers, the military, medical staff and Commonwealth bureaucrats enormous powers to invade the privacy of people, force them to comply with edicts, and to potentially take children away from their parents on the basis of what could turn out to be false allegations.

And will those individuals who will be subject to the Howard/Brough martial law regime have the opportunity to appeal against decisions made by this assortment of enforcers? What will be the role of the courts in acting as a check and balance on the actions of government officials?

None of this is clear, and yet, Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory are already frightened and vulnerable. In Mutitjulu, which is about to experience a dose of the Howard/Brough regime, community members yesterday were cowering because they rightly fear a ‘military occupation’.

This is where the legal profession needs to take a stand. It must do so, not to be obstructive, but to ensure that fundamental human rights are protected in the Northern Territory. Just as lawyers objected to the treatment of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay, and of the Howard Government’s brutal asylum-seeker policies, so they must speak out about this latest shredding of democracy by the Prime Minister.

An executive government which is not checked by individuals having the right of access to the courts is authoritarian, and no lesser description will do.

If the Northern Territory legal profession and the nation’s peak legal bodies, the Law Council of Australia and the ABA, do not castigate the Howard Government for its declaration of a state of emergency in the NT then it will have failed the vulnerable people whom it professes to protect.

One lives in hope that lawyers who take seriously their obligation to ensure fairness, particularly for the most vulnerable, will find their voice quickly, before the jackboots and flak jackets do too much damage.