The quickest way to get trampled in public debate at present is to stand between a professed civil libertarian and the opportunity a microphone presents for knee-jerk criticism. A close second, of course, would be to stand between any rostrum and a politician seeking to scare up some votes, either for or against increased security measures, by appealing to sectional prejudices or suspicions.
A recent example is posturing by ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope (and others) as to the minor detail of draft counter-terrorism legislation, thoroughly approved in principle and general thrust, at the last Council of Australian Governments meeting. This is, by the way, the same professed civil libertarian Jon Stanhope who is comfortable with the electronic tagging or indefinite detention of all serious sex offenders, after they have completed their sentence, but apparently unhappy with preventative detention or control orders in a minute number of cases of terrorism.
But he is not alone in his inconsistencies or seeming unwillingness to acknowledge that our national circumstances have changed significantly. The fundamental point in the counter-terrorism measures versus civil liberties debate is the question whether Australia’s pluralist liberal-democratic society is under attack from Islamist terrorism or not?
If the answer is yes, as most Australians appear to recognise, then much more restraint is needed in media coverage in particular and public debate in general. There should be no more wild claims or thoughtless scaremongering that our civil liberties in general are seriously threatened by what are, in reality, quite narrowly targeted counter-terrorism measures featuring numerous checks and balances.
Several High Court judgments during both World Wars established that the relevant constitutional heads of power governing national security wax and wane depending on the threat. Too many forget this principle and its application to the current heightened, long-term and complex threat from Islamist terrorism.
The ahistoric approach of many critics of the counter-terrorism measures is especially disappointing. Australian history includes many examples where the end of the world was forecast if certain security or criminal justice measures were or were not adopted. Almost invariably the prophesies of doom were disproved and Aussie commonsense and tolerance won out.
Debates about balancing free speech and security have occurred before, during previous threats from the 1920s onwards, with only the labels of the extremists being different. Australia has faced down internal threats of varying degrees from anarchists, wobblies, fascists, various kinds of communists and a range of separatist-supporting émigré groups.
Australia will successfully face down Islamist terrorism and we will do so much quicker if we remain cool headed. Over-reaction on all sides must be avoided and the debate must be grounded in facts, not opinion and wild allegation.
Some of the new measures are undoubtedly tough by normal peacetime standards - which no longer necessarily apply. But they are not unprecedented during time of conflict and in coping with associated acts of subversion, sabotage, sedition and treason.
The measures will also only affect very small numbers of people in most unusual circumstances of their own choosing. A key point is that the new measures are specifically targeted only at terrorists and their committed and active sympathisers - a very small, distinct and readily distinguishable segment of the population.
Most Australians strongly support this approach because they clearly realise this fact. The reason the Islamist extremists targeted by the measures (and some of their apologists) claim otherwise is because they realise it too.
Despite the fibs and alarmist rumours being peddled, and the sheer historical or contextual ignorance often displayed, legitimate peaceful dissent will be unaffected. Acts such as criticising government foreign policy, staging a protest march or writing subjective letters to the editor will remain just as legal as they are now.
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