The Guardian 14 December, 2005

Sedition equals persecution

Peter Mac

Last week Federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock leapt into print in defence of the government's new sedition laws. In a statement dripping with hypocrisy, Ruddock argued that "Australians would reject the notion that force or use of violence is an acceptable means of effecting political change". He obviously didn't include the government's participation in the war against Iraq, intensely promoted by completely false statements about weapons of mass destruction, as "force or use of violence" as a means of effecting political change.

Ruddock argues ingenuously that under the new laws "seditious intention is part of the criteria used to define an unlawful organisation, but in itself is not an offence that an individual can be charged with." However, if the individual is a member of that organisation, he or she will certainly be charged with an offence.

Ruddock states that it will not be an offence "to criticise the Constitution, the government or the lawful authority". Howard himself recently laughed heartily as he reassured TV viewers that "Cartoonists will still be able to pillory me and Mr Beazley".

However, there's a great deal of difference between ridiculing a Minister of the Crown on one hand, and making a fundamental criticism of governmental policy, particularly on defence issues, on the other hand.

As an example, Ruddock has stated that "there can be no justification for people in Australia to believe it is acceptable to assist those engaged in armed hostilities against Australian troops".

If this legislation had applied at the time of the Vietnam War when Australia joined the US in its invasion of that country, opposition to the war would have been a punishable offence.

The post-war Nuremburg war trials concluded that those who morally disagree with their country's involvement in a war have to speak out against it, and take action against it.

A British officer has now been stood down for opposing Britain's involvement in the Iraq war. The outcome of his court-martial could threaten Britain's future involvement in that conflict. The Howard government's sedition laws are intended to blunt or suppress any such criticism of government policy.

Sedition laws were originally passed to protect royalty and feudal property relations. Although brought here with the "legal baggage" of British colonisation, the existing sedition laws have long been recognised as outdated, and relating to a past and extremely oppressive form of society.

These laws have been rarely used, the last memorable occasion was in 1953, when the Menzies Government used them against the Communist Party of Australia.

So why would the Howard Government reincarnate and update the existing sedition laws now? The only reasonable conclusion must be that they intend to use them.

Moreover, to date much public attention has been focused on the impact of these laws on the mass media. Yet historically, the main use of sedition laws was against the Communist Party of Australia, which challenges the capitalist mode of production, the very nature of the state.

The current Federal Government, and Howard in particular, is clearly obsessed with achieving the objectives of former ultra-conservative Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. These included crushing workers' rights and busting their unions, but Menzies also had a burning ambition to destroy the Communist Party of Australia.

For this purpose he attempted to enact legislation to outlaw the Party. When that was rejected as unconstitutional by the Courts, he attempted to change the Constitution by referendum, to bring the legislation into effect. Menzies was defeated again.

However, the Howard Government has already achieved by other means much of what Menzies set out but failed to do. Howard's ASIO legislation allows anyone suspected of having information about "terrorist" activities to be detained potentially indefinitely. Other legislation allows organisations nominated by the government as "terrorist" to be outlawed, and grants the Federal Police sweeping powers of arrest and detention.

The legislation gives the government power to suppress virtually any left-wing or progressive organisation, and to take punitive action against any individual, even when their conduct is obviously non-violent.

This was vividly illustrated by the recent arrest and deportation of American peace activist Scott Parkin. The issue in that case was not his nationality, but rather that his activities were deemed to be a threat to the nation's security, and therefore punishable (in his case by deportation).

Under this precedent the government could arrest and prosecute any member of a peace group, or possibly any other organisation that challenged the government on an issue of major importance.

This is the sort of power that was held by fascist governments before and during the Second Word War. With the Howard Government at the wheel, Australia is on an extremely dangerous political road.

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