The new anti-terrorism laws recently announced by the Attorney-General Robert McClelland raise alarm bells. At face value a number of proposed amendments look as though they roll back some of the excess of the current laws – limits to the sedition offences, a right of appeal against the use of secret evidence, and minor clarifications of the meaning and scope of some terms and offences.
The proposal to cap the period of detention without charge to seven days from an open-ended indefinite period is a welcome reform after the horror of Dr Mohamed Haneef’s 12-day detention ordeal without charge for an offence he did not commit. However, seven days is still too long when you can be detained on police suspicion. The underlying reason why Dr Haneef was able to be detained in the first place remains in the extraordinary breadth of the laws.
The proposals extend the current anti-terrorism laws in a way which exacerbate their many existing flaws. For example, the definition of a terrorist act will be expanded. Instead of a terrorist act needing to cause, or be likely to cause, physical harm, now a terrorist act may simply be one which is likely to cause psychological harm.
Secondly, a new offence of ‘urging violence against individuals in a group’ widens the already over-reaching anti-terror laws. The effect of this law could mean that talking about supporting legitimate conflicts for self-determination overseas will expose people to policing and criminal charges.
Thirdly, the Australian Federal Police will no longer need warrants to conduct searches of premises. While the intention appears to be that warrantless searches occur only in an emergency, with the removal of oversight by someone like a judge, the powers have wide potential to be misused.
No evidence has been presented to explain why these new laws are necessary. Instead, the Attorney General has opportunistically seized on recent events to justify the new changes. There were, however, no legal impediments to police in making the arrests in Melbourne earlier this month. Meanwhile, many of the laws, such as the executive banning of organisations, remain out of line with criminal justice standards. In fact the new proposals seek to extend the time for banning organisations before there is a review from two to three years.
The announcement of new laws also comes after the Greens introduced a bill repealing the most draconian aspects of the laws, scuttling the opportunity for fairer reforms. The Greens’ proposals included introducing more accountability into executive banning of ‘terrorist organisations’ and abolishing the crime of associating with a member of a terrorist organisation, amongst others.
Instead of ad-hoc new laws, safeguards should be strengthened to prevent further erosion of civil rights. The new proposals don’t make us any safer from violence – they only make it easier for people to be convicted of ‘thought crimes’ and will continue to entrench Muslims especially as a ‘suspect community’.
By Zachariah Matthews
Australian Muslim Civil Rights and Advocacy Network