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Federal

Aug 6, 2014

Where's the justification for the sudden rush for spy powers?

The government has suddenly lurched forward on national security with a huge package of reforms that strengthen our worst anti-terrorism laws without justification.

So we’re now in the midst of a full-blown terrorism panic, with another assault on basic freedoms and more money thrown at security agencies, all justified on the basis of ISIS — a gift that has kept on giving to advocates of the War on Terror from the moment they emerged in Iraq and jumpstarted the long-dead hearts of neocons.

The government’s announcement yesterday constitutes a list of deeply concerning proposals beyond its confirmation of a data retention scheme. They include:

  • a $630 million increase in intelligence agency, AFP and Customs funding over four years;
  • expanding terror laws to make advocacy of terrorism in general an offence (Crikey discussed the problems with this last week);
  • extending current draconian ASIO questioning and detention powers beyond their sunset data of 2016;
  • strengthening and extending the AFP’s control orders and preventive detention powers;
  • a new crime of travelling to a designated area where terrorism is occurring, with the onus of proof reversed for those claiming they have a legitimate purpose; and
  • new powers to suspend passports.

The proposals relating to passports — and we’ve yet to see the legislative detail — are consistent with the recommendations of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Bret Walker SC in his final report in March this year. The new offence of travelling to a designated region is also intended to address the concerns Walker raised in March about the potential threat posed by Australians becoming radicalised and trained in conflict zones. Others are explicitly contrary to Walker’s recommendations. In Walker’s 2012 report he concluded that “control orders in their present form are not effective, not appropriate and not necessary” and that “preventative detention orders are not effective, not appropriate and not necessary. They should simply be abolished.” Instead, the government proposes to strengthen and extend them.

The concept of designating regions as no-go zones of course has a particular piquancy at the moment. Australians are still permitted to fight for national armies, so going to Israel and joining the Israel Defence Forces to help level Gaza is fine, but joining the Syrian rebels fighting the monstrous regime of Bashar al-Assad will become a crime, even though the United States is desperately pumping arms and ammunition into moderate rebel elements inside Syria. Indeed, under the phrasing used by the Prime Minister yesterday, an Australian could fight for Assad, but not against him.

The $630 million increase over four years is also staggering in scope. To give an indication of its size, the entire ASIO budget this year is $600 million. Plainly, the age of entitlement continues for security institutions — they have been given what they requested, the Prime Minister said yesterday.

While the passport changes have a strong policy rationale from Walker — although the government has proven eager to use its current powers to prevent a whistleblower leaving Australia to provide evidence of spying on East Timor — and arguably the no-go zone proposal does as well, the justification for the remainder of the package is remarkably thin. Data retention (which overseas experience shows doesn’t work anyway) will have no effect on the threat of potential terrorists returning from conflict zones, since they can be targeted under the existing wide range of interception powers that agencies already have to target suspects for wiretapping and data retention orders (agencies have an existing power to request telcos and ISPs to retain data associated with an individual account). And as Abbott himself insisted on stressing yesterday, “the terrorist threat here in this country has not changed”, and yet some of the most draconian aspects of the Howard government’s counter-terrorism laws will be extended and strengthened, a new restriction on free speech will be established and $630 million will be wasted padding the budgets of security agencies.

Imagine how many lives could be saved if $630 million were directed at prevention, research or treatment of the lengthy list of diseases — starting with shingles and going on upwards — that claim more Australian lives every year than the entire death toll from terrorist attacks in Australian history? How many road fatalities could be prevented by directing that sort of money to accident black spots? As Crikey has explained in detail previously, the vast expenditure associated with the War on Terror does virtually nothing to increase our safety, while depriving areas where that spending could make a real difference in saving lives.

From spending the first half of the year studiously ignoring national security issues despite the report from the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security last year (of which Attorney-General Brandis was then a member) and Walker’s reports, the government has lurched into overdrive, looking to hustle through not one, not two but three sets of legislation further strengthening the role of security institutions at the expense of taxpayers and individual rights. It’s the Howard years all over again — only this time, there’s no actual excuse for the rush, only the exploitation of nebulous fears about “Aussie jihadis”.

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22 comments

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22 thoughts on “Where’s the justification for the sudden rush for spy powers?

  1. Arty Boxer

    > with the onus of proof reversed for those claiming they have a legitimate purpose

    So all this data collection is still expected to be insufficient for proof.

    Meanwhile, the terrorist group of today, if successful, will be the freedom fighters of tomorrow, and perhaps eventually the government.

  2. klewso

    Maybe they can find Toady’s dog, Budget?

  3. mikehilliard

    We don’t need protection from terrorists as much as we need to be protected from this government.

  4. David Hand

    I think it’s clear what the policy initiative is trying to address. It is the departure of young men to radicalised places such as ISIS controlled Syria / Iraq who then return to Australia and may commit terrorist acts similar to the London bombings.

    It is also utterly reasonable to resist American style surveillance capability to be brought into being in the name of protecting us.

    The comment on the legality of fighting for Assad and the illegality of fighting against him is interesting but when you look through the prism of security of Australian towns, a radicalised ISIS fighter presents a greater risk than fighting for Assad.

  5. Steve777

    I am far from convinced of the need for these terrorism law changes and especially of the need to reverse the onus of proof in the case of someone travelling to trouble spots. These are some very basic and long standing legal rights we’re talking about. And terrorism, murder and sabotage and plotting to perpetrate any of these are already illegal.

    Compare and contrast with Australia’s response to the Cold War. We never legislated for draconian restrictions on communism. An attempt to ban the Communist Party was thrown out first by the High Court then by the Australian people. In contrast, a number of authoritarian regimes did promulgate draconian anti Communist laws, which they used to suppress dissidents and peaceful opposition.

    The Government needs to make its case. If Abbott and Brandis instead hector opponents, accusing anyone expressing doubts about the need for or wisdom of these proposed laws of being ‘friends of terrorists’, then we’ll know that the Government is trying to set up Jihadis as the new ‘Boats’.

  6. Bill Hilliger

    Security is a growth industry it soaks up enormous amounts of $$$$, no questions asked. Unlike the communists of a past era, with whom we make big trade $$$$ nowadays; terrorists are a never ending enemy. What more can a unaccountable payola security industry ask for?

  7. Vincent O'Donnell

    It might, too, given heightened security concerns, be the right time to ask when ASIO is to get the keys to its new home? The transparency problem has been solved, the reflective glass windows don’t fall out any more. Or is that lovely Russell Hill site going to be redeveloped as housing for the poor as the Chinese government is believed to have got their hands on the plans of the building?

  8. muruk

    This is Abbott and his squad of goons continuing the weaseling of their version of the Gestapo into Australian society. What else should we expect from this of bunch of secretive neo-fascists, an update to the more modern Stasi perhaps? Then how long will it be before each one of us has to achieve a weekly quota of denunciations in order to avoid punishment?

  9. extra

    How long will it be before they come up against a situation where the old ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ meme is applicable? they must be praying that they never have to express a view on current events in Libya. Then again, what about expressing support for the actions of the Stern Gang, the Irgun and the Haganah in British Palestine?

  10. The Pav

    Dear David Hand

    In the interests of fairness no doubt you will also condemn the number of Australians ( of all ages not just young men) who go to Israel to both serve in the army and also act as settlers in various disputed territories as this has been happening for many years

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