Australia’s anti-terror laws are so sweeping in their reach that they are embedding into our criminal justice system the repugnant concept of guilt by association.
Supported by both the Liberal and Labor parties, and opposed when they were passed in 2004 and 2005 by the Australian Democrats and the Greens, these laws would support the conviction of individuals who donate money to organizations such as Nelson Mandela’s ANC and the PLO.
The anti-terror laws were passed by the Australian Parliament as a result of the horrific events of 9/11. In their scope and intent they unfortunately reflect the emotion and irrationality of that period.
Under the anti-terror laws a person who gives funds to an organization, knowing it to be a terrorist organization, can face up to 25 years in jail. A terrorist organization is so broadly defined that it would, if it had been around the 1970s and 1980s, have made criminals of thousands of well meaning Australians who donated money to helping the ANC throw off the yoke of apartheid in South Africa or to the liberation fighters in East Timor who fought their repressive Indonesian masters.
Today, we would react with horror at the suggestion that someone should be labelled a terrorist for giving money and sympathizing with such movements.
The other aspect of these laws which is troubling is that an organization can be a terrorist organization even if it has no terrorist act in mind. It is enough that a person subscribes to the philosophy of violence with the purpose of achieving a political end.
In other words, what one says and thinks alone can now be considered criminal. This is a serious extension of the criminal law and it means that people who express radical views or who associate with those who do and agree with such views, can now be considered to have committed a criminal offence.
None of this is to say we do not need to protect ourselves as a community against acts of terrorism — clearly we do. But we also need to recognize that there is a world of difference between preparing to act and acting, and merely thinking and talking.
There needs to be a restoration of balance in the anti-terror laws because at the moment the breathtaking reach of these laws is such that what we would not believe to be criminal has been made so by our politicians.
Greg Barns is a barrister and appeared for the defence in the Melbourne terrorism trial.