The Guardian 21 September, 2005

Howard "terror" laws
to stifle opposition

Federal government heavyweights will be meeting with their state counterparts later this month at a special summit to consider "counter-terrorism" measures. It seems likely that September 27 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments, rather than being a clash between the state Labor governments and the Howard government over its scandalous human rights record, will be a meeting of the minds on how to further limit the rights of Australian citizens and of people arriving in our country.

There is disquiet even in the ranks of the parliamentary ALP over the party’s complicity in the destruction of long-held civil rights. The member for the Sydney seat of Banks, Darryl Melham, has called on Kim Beazley to come out against Howard’s plan to allow, among other things, detention of individuals for up to 48 hours without charge in a "terrorism situation". Former Labor justice spokesman Duncan Kerr has supported Melham’s appeal to Beazley.

The member for Banks is also concerned that the states may get into a bidding war with the Commonwealth to see who can be toughest on "terror". South Australia and Western Australia have already expressed their willingness to join NSW in this bizarre auction to see which state can propose the longest period in detention without charge. This suits Howard’s strategy. The constitution currently puts a 48-hour limit on detention without charge under federal law. His government may well seek to get all the states and territories to help him out with a period of involuntary detention under their laws of up to 14 days — as is now allowed for in the UK.

It is disturbing to note that, in the British example, the House of Lords rejected an attempt by the Blair government in 2004 to allow for the indefinite detention of foreign nationals because it infringed the right to liberty under the European Convention on Human Rights. However, in the same year, the High Court in Australia ruled that it is acceptable to hold a person under indefinite, involuntary, "non-punitive" detention in a range of circumstances. Previously, these have been in cases of criminal guilt, mental illness, infectious disease and unclear immigration status (the High Court ruling was in response to a challenge to the constitutionality of the indefinite detention of asylum seekers).

The trend in recent legislation has been to create a new category of supposed risk that could quite easily be added to the others. This would be of persons deemed to be a threat to Australia’s "national security" — a term the Commonwealth gives the broadest imaginable definition. At present it is said to be whatever relates to "Australia’s defence, security, international relations, law enforcement interests or national interests".

The potential for Australian governments to lock allegedly dangerous persons away without charge forever and with no public explanation is very real. Dean of the Law faculty at Monash University concluded an opinion piece in the national press with the following observation: "If we uncritically accept the metaphors of war and the need for emergency powers, there will be few limits to the growth of the preventative state, where what matters is not what you have done but what the government suspects that you might do. That is not a secure foundation for a just and safe society."

The case of Scott Parkin is instructive. The visiting US peace activist was contacted by ASIO just prior to when he was to participate in a workshop on non-violent protest in Melbourne. Scott (who is known for his opposition to the US involvement in the war in Iraq and the profiteering of corporations like Halliburton) was snatched off the streets and detained at the Melbourne Custody Centre for five days before being deported. He was quarantined from contact with the media.

It turns out that the Department of Immigration had cancelled his visa, leaving him open to the deportable offence of being in the country without an appropriate travel document. No explanation has been given for extreme measures taken against the activist. After a secret briefing from ASIO, the leaders of the parliamentary ALP decided not to challenge this underhand move against the rights of ordinary people to associate, express their opinions and organise.

The incident occurred in the same week that it came to light that the Department of Foreign Affairs had issued false documents to Ergi and Valbona Kola — an ethnic Albanian couple who had been refused permission to return to Serbia. It is claimed that Foreign Affairs produced the new documents with the false names for the Department of Immigration in June last year in order that the couple could be forced to return to Serbia. Their real names — Paulin Pali and Venona Vata — would have raised the suspicions of Serbian officials.

It was the same week that the Commonwealth Ombudsman adversely named several government officials in the wrongful deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon in 2001. It seems the checklist of steps to be taken before a person can be deported was never completed or has gone "missing" from the Department of Foreign Affairs file where it should be.

With the forthcoming summit the federal government will no doubt be pressing for more legislation that will allow it to deal with its political opposition with the same ruthlessness shown in the case of Scott Parkin, without the potential for exposure and embarrassment that accompanied revelations about the cases of Vivian Alvarez Solon, Paulin Pali and Venona Vata.

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