Yesterday, the federal government displayed its willingness to flagrantly toss aside some of the most fundamental Australian values and norms, like the presumption of innocence and having our courts decide who should be imprisoned.

On the same day, a Senate Committee was meeting in Canberra to examine legislation implementing the government’s new citizenship test, requiring migrants to pass a test showing they understand Australian values and our democratic traditions before they are allowed to become citizens.

There is a certain ironic symmetry in the fact that the government used its draconian powers under the Migration Act to lock up Dr Mohamed Haneef when a court decision under the so-called anti-terrorism laws decided he should be allowed into the community.

Despite the many examples over the years of Ministers using powers under the Migration Act to lock up people for years without charge or trial, and to capriciously deport people into danger without access to independent appeal or scrutiny of their reasons or actions, many Australians seemed not to comprehend just how grievously those unconstrained ministerial powers and discretions offend our fundamental democratic norms. Campaigns by many people, including myself, over many years about the dangerous and unfair nature of such open-ended powers have only made slow progress in the face of public indifference or politically manufactured fear towards migrants.

However, the treatment of Dr Haneef has been so blatantly unfair, unreasonable, malevolent and politically motivated that few Australians could have failed to notice. One does not need any imagination to think how insecure hundreds of thousands of people living and working in Australia on a variety of migration visas now feel. Neither does one need any imagination to know how fearful many thousands of Australians now are, having seen that even the most innocent of contact through an email, a conversation, a mobile phone, can put one at real risk of guilt by association.

There is a dark irony in the way politicians use language such as ‘anti-terror measures’ to justify laws which are now striking terror into the lives of thousands of Australians.

I attended the court in Brisbane where Magistrate Jacqui Payne handed down her bail decision. It is a pity her matter of fact assessment of the situation to date has not been given more attention.

It must be emphasised that at no stage did the government argue that Dr Haneef should not be released because he presented a safety risk to the Australian community. Their argument was based solely on the (ludicrous) possibility that he was a flight risk.

In coming to her decision that ‘extraordinary circumstances’, as defined under the Section 15AA of the Crimes Act, did exist, she specifically included factors reflecting positively on Dr Haneef’s character. Yet the Immigration Minister was still able to (just) keep a straight face mere hours later in saying he had formed a ‘reasonable suspicion’ which led him to cancel Dr Haneef’s visa on character grounds.

For years, basic legal protections built up over centuries have been eroded by federal governments seeking to grab greater power. As with any authoritarian government, this has been justified through a climate of fear where almost any injustice is meant to be tolerated to ‘protect’ us. Hysteria has triumphed over reason.

As magistrate Payne said in making her bail decision, no decision has zero risk — the question is what level of risk is acceptable. We are putting the very freedoms which provide the foundation of our democracy at very great risk in the futile aim of putting ourselves at zero risk from terrorists. Our Australian values — the very ones we are insisting new migrants learn and adopt before they can become ‘real’ Australians — have never been so under threat as they are today.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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