The Guardian 12 October, 2005

COAG in a conga line

Marcus Browning

Late last month at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting the Howard Government gained the acquiescence of the State Labor Governments to introduce even more fascistic laws in the name of anti-terrorism. The new legislation — to be drafted federally and passed by each state — gives the Australian Federal Police new powers to electronically tag and restrict the movements of suspects for 12 months. Police will have the authority to detain suspects as young as 16 for up to two weeks.

Police powers will be expanded to allow them to stop, question and search people at random in transport hubs and at mass gatherings such as sporting events and rallies. There will be a new offence of "inciting violence", including against Australian troops overseas.

This latter is clearly designed to gag criticism of Australia’s participation in conflicts. As proposed by Howard in September, people can be imprisoned for between three and seven years if they "communicate inciting messages directed against other groups within the community, including against Australia’s forces overseas and in support of Australia’s enemies."

Also it will be an offence to leave baggage unattended; the waiting period for citizenship will be extended from two to three years; a new "notice to produce" provision, which will allow police to "insist" on being given information; airlines will be obliged to give the Federal Police and ASIO access to passenger information; the validity of ASIO search warrants will be extended from 28 days to three months; penalties will be increased for any individual or organisation considered to be financing terrorism or providing false or misleading information.

Islamic groups are understandably fearful they will be targeted, even though the community has lived peacefully in Australia for generations. Immediately after the COAG meeting a leading member of the Government’s own Muslim advisory body, Ameer Ali, said the laws went too far. "If you speak in support of the resistance in Iraq, that must not be seen as promoting terrorism in this country", he stated.

The photos on the front pages of the daily newspapers of PM John Howard surrounded by beaming Labor Premiers brought to mind the colourful phrase Mark Latham used to describe some of his ALP compatriots — "A conga line of suckholes". Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley has even made the ludicrous proposal that Labor would scrap the HECS debt for 200 students a year if they go to work for ASIO or ASIS.

The states had some "amendments" included, essentially a review of the laws after five years and a "sunset clause" of ten years which in theory would see the laws expire. But Howard has qualified that, saying they may or may not be kept on the books: the Government has no intention of scrapping them.

The recent introduction by the Bracks Government in Victoria and the Gallop Government in WA to allow police to conduct secret searches of people’s homes follows along the same path NSW has already gone down. After the COAG meeting Queensland Premier Peter Beattie described the laws as "draconian but necessary", a prime example of the opportunistic position of the ALP.

We need look no further than the expulsion last month of US peace activist Scott Parkin on the grounds that he "posed a threat to national security" to see how these laws will be used. Already under the current draconian legislation people of the Muslim faith have been arbitrarily and secretly arrested and interrogated by the authorities. It is against the law for them to even talk about their experience.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone’s announcement of the planned introduction of a national ID card "to prevent a repeat of the Rau case" — in which Australian citizen Cornelia Rau was imprisoned in a refugee detention centre — clearly exposes the Government’s agenda. It was the Government’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers that caused Cornelia Rau and others to be locked up, and in at least one case deported.

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