George Brandis Malcolm Turnbull

At virtually the same time as Prime Minister Turnbull and the Attorney-General, the unfortunate George Brandis, were yesterday announcing yet more counter-terrorism laws, the most powerful Tasmanian Liberal, Senator Eric Abetz, was recommending an article by one of his staffers expressing concerns about “an open-border approach to Muslim immigration” and attacking critics of TV host Sonia Kruger.

That we don’t have an open-border approach for “Muslim immigration”, or for that matter any immigration, seemed to pass Abetz by, despite his being a former cabinet minister. Perhaps he spent cabinet discussions on Immigration submissions engrossed in plotting attacks on moderate Liberals in his home state. Meanwhile, LNP MP George Christensen, having failed to learn from his premature attribution of the Merrylands incident to Muslims last week, was trying to use the Munich shooting rampage the same way, again wrongly. And Cory Bernardi’s Islamophobia was going in even crazier directions.

These are government MPs, not independents like Pauline Hanson or Jacqui Lambie, or TV hosts paid to generate controversy like Kruger. When unrebuked, they speak with a legitimacy that gives extra weight to their bigotry — exactly the reason that last year security agencies were warning about MPs engaging in the demonisation of Australia’s many and varied Muslim communities. But they also form part of what has been a step-change in Islamophobia in Australia in recent months. Muslims are vilified more, and more often, and by higher-profile people, while we ponder what drives radicalisation and how to prevent it.

The Prime Minister, commendably, sought to counter this during the election campaign by hosting Muslim community leaders to iftar at Kirribilli House, and found himself attacked by bigots as a result. Turnbull has made an effort to significantly change the language of counter-terrorism from that employed by his predecessor, Tony Abbott, who began by taking an inclusive approach to Muslim communities and ended by attacking them. But as the first notable action of his time as an elected Prime Minister, Turnbull’s announcement yesterday said much — in particular, that he has little in the way of an actual agenda for this parliamentary term, forcing him to default to national security as his first major announcement.

If you look at Turnbull’s stated reason for pushing indefinite detention, as well as returning a bill for more control orders to parliament (George “people have a right to be bigots” Brandis is also introducing an offence of “advocacy of genocide”), it looks decidedly thin. “There has been an increase in the frequency and the severity of terrorist attacks globally and particularly in Western nations such as ours,” was the only rationale offered by the Prime Minister. Specifically quizzed on whether indefinite detention was aimed at the imminent release of convicted terrorists, Brandis admitted that the only people it could possibly apply to would not be eligible for release until the end of 2019.

Nor was it explained why, if a convicted terrorist was genuinely committed to wreaking havoc once released, he wouldn’t simply feign rehabilitation in order to secure release at the end of his prison sentence — something that other violent criminals have been known to do.

What was also notable was the change in language about counter-terrorism laws. In what looks to be a classic case of boiling frog policy, whereas once amendments to counter-terrorism laws that significantly affected the rule of law and basic legal rights were considered unusual and worthy of extensive debate, with the focus was on getting the overall counter-terrorism framework right, we’ve now moved to a world of constant additional infringements on rights. Once the policy challenge was, according to apologists for ever-more draconian counter-terrorism powers, “getting the balance right”; now, according to the Prime Minister, “we are as agile as our opponents. We are determined to ensure that as they develop new ways of threatening us, we are able to respond quickly and effectively.”

Or as Turnbull might have said, there’s never been a better time to be a security bureaucrat. The language of innovation and agility so beloved of the Prime Minister is now applied to security, except it’s surveillance and locking people up without trial that are the products, not grants programs and STEM funding. We’ve moved to a world where there are always more powers to be adopted and more rights to be infringed, in an ever-expanding universe of counter-terrorism laws designed to counter allegedly ever more agile terrorists.

Quite how, say, Islamic State has become more “agile” isn’t clear except insofar as their willingness to “claim responsibility” for the actions of mentally-ill killers and petty thugs motivated by dreams of notoriety, no matter how tenuous their links with IS’s medieval worldview. In the years when Al Qaeda was alleged to have access to weapons of mass destruction, we had stronger civil rights protections, fewer infringements on the rule of law and fewer security bureaucrats. Now, every new attack must apparently be met with an equivalent rollback of another legal freedom in the west.

“They hate us for our freedom” is the official Western line on the causes of Islamist terrorism. Our response is to keep on rolling back those freedoms. Makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey