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Terrorism laws: prevention is better than cure

By Philip Ruddock - posted Friday, 23 September 2005

The Government’s recent announcement of proposals to further refine and strengthen Australia’s counter-terrorism laws has raised some legitimate questions. Why are more laws needed when the existing laws are rarely used? Will the changes make Australians safer? Why are they only being considered now?

The case for seeking to ensure our legislative regime remains responsive in the war against terror is a simple one. Just as the nature of the terrorist threat is constantly evolving, so too is the need to ensure our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have every legislative measure they need to keep one step ahead of the terrorists.

We know much more now than we did then about the methods of terrorists and their intentions. I have always regarded our counter-terrorism laws as an unfinished canvas. It is entirely appropriate that they be further refined and improved as our knowledge and experience of the terrorist threat increases.


To borrow the words of the 18th century scientist Georg Lichtenberg - “Ask yourself always … how can this be done better”.

Australia’s counter-terrorism legislative regime was comprehensively reviewed and significantly updated following the devastating terror strikes in the United States on September 11, 2001. This was done in anticipation of attacks on our home soil we all hope will never occur.

The Government acknowledged at the time it hoped the new laws would not be needed. Nonetheless, critics suggested these laws did not make Australians safer and they could or would be misused.

Four years on the reality is very different. Individuals have been charged under these laws with planning terrorist attacks; others with links to terrorist organisations who travelled here to organise attacks have been identified, and groups of people sympathetic to such organisations have been uncovered.

It is true that our existing terrorism laws have been rarely used. I wish they never had to be used. That was our hope in 2002 and it remains my hope today.

ASIO’s powers have been used to reveal information about plots to attack our cities, kill and injure our citizens and to strike fear into the very heart of our society. While sparingly used, these laws have proven to be effective. ASIO powers have already been used to question people who were later charged with terrorism offences.


The fact ASIO has used its questioning powers on only eight occasions since they were introduced in 2002, and has never used the detention powers, in my view points to their responsible use. At the same time, if the need for the power arises, it is there. It is no good waiting for an attack to occur before we put in place control orders and preventative detention powers. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Terrorists have shown they are adaptable and do not require centralised organisation or external direction. The proposed new laws are about confronting the “franchising of terror” already becoming evident in other countries. This was a feature of the London attacks and could happen here in Australia.

We already have offences dealing with training, financing, assisting and associating with terrorist organisations. Now there is a need to stop organisations from advocating terrorism by encouraging it. The glorification of terrorist activity can cause as much harm as those who supply the bombs and guns. That is why the Government is extending the criteria for banning terrorist organisations and modernising the offence of sedition.

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About the Author

Philip Ruddock was attorney-general and minister for immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs in the Howard government, and is the Liberal member for Berowra.

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Related Links
Anti-terror laws make a Federal Bill of Rights more necessary - On Line Opinion
The war on terrorism goes a step too far - On Line Opinion

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