The Guardian 9 November, 2005
No act too low
for this government of liars
The Howard Government has ratcheted up its fear mongering over terrorism. The cynically timed arrests of people in Melbourne and Sydney are aimed at propping up PM John Howard's sagging public support. A man has been shot in one of the raids at Green Valley in Sydney's south-west. As The Guardian went to press his condition was unknown. The latest Newspoll survey shows public support for Howard is the lowest in four years because of the Government's industrial relations and terror laws.
It was no coincidence that Howard's blatant gambit — last week's announcement that there was "specific intelligence" of a "potential terrorist attack" — came on the day his draconian anti-union laws were pushed through the Lower House.
Fifteen people have been arrested in raids conducted by more than 400 police on a number of suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne in what the Victorian Police Commissioner called a "long-term operation". Eight of the nine people arrested in Victoria have been charged with being members of an unnamed proscribed organisation. One of those arrested in Melbourne was Imam Abu Bakr whose home has been raided by ASIO at least twice this year.
At a meeting in September of Australian Muslims, Agnes Chong of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network warned of the danger of the increased police powers to democratic rights. "We know of at least 18 people who have been questioned and detained under ASIO warrants", she said. Those arrests were low profile and secretive, yet the Sydney and Melbourne actions were unveiled with public relations hoopla.
At the same time one of Howard's allies in the war on Iraq suffered an embarrassing defeat with the Government of Tony Blair forced to put off a parliamentary vote on one of its terror laws.
Howard's dramatic posturing in recalling the Senate to rush through an amendment — changing the wording in the Criminal Code from "the terrorist act" to "a terrorist act" — to his terror laws, giving even more arrest and detention powers to the police, was a calculated move as unrest over the laws increased.
Howard refused to reveal any details of the alleged threat, and now the Government is being secretive about the latest arrests. But he will have an eye on Blair's dilemma in Britain. Home Secretary Charles Drake had to cancel a vote on the proposal to allow police to hold suspects for up to 90 days without charge because Labor backbenchers intended to cross the floor and vote against it.
Howard's reckless act certainly has the smell of desperation about it.
The new sedition laws are there to gag critics of the Government.
Nick Parsons from Currency Press, the major independent publisher of the performing arts in Australia, warns that, regardless of Howard stating the laws will not "curtail legitimate free speech" the Bill makes no special allowance for criticism, political or otherwise. It says that sedition is an offence, regardless of how it is committed, or by whom.
There are other provisions for "unlawful association" defined as "anybody [who] advocates or encourages the carrying out of seditious intention". This includes "an intention to bring the sovereign into hatred or contempt, to urge disaffection against following the constitution, the Government and either house of Parliament".
Mr Parsons also points out that unlike the crime of sedition, there is no defence of "good faith" when it comes to seditious intent.
Defence Minister Robert Hill also announced that the Government wants the power to call out the military in the event of a terrorist act in Australia and wants reservists to have a greater role in Australia as a "rapid reaction force".
He's backed to the hilt in this by the CIA's main representative in Australia, The Australian newspaper's foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, who in a column last week called for Australian army and navy personnel to patrol the streets of the major capital cities.
Greens Senator Kerry Nettle pointed out that the Government already has huge powers to use the military. "Extraordinary new powers were passed in 2000 which gave significantly more powers to the Army than they had ever received", she noted. "Troops were given the power to cordon off areas, to stop and search, to detain people and shoot-to-kill powers".
Senator Nettle called the Government's announcement of a "specific" threat a smokescreen. "We've seen now twice the terror card played by the Government as a way of seeking to garner support for their moves and making sure industrial relations isn't on the front page of the newspapers."