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To win the War on Terror we must protect democracy as well as our lives

By Greg Barns - posted Friday, 15 November 2002

The terrorist attack in Bali on Sunday was horrific and showed yet again that terrorism is footloose throughout the world, but we must ensure that it is not used to cajole the Senate into passing the draconian ‘anti-terrorist’ ASIO legislation that comes before it this week. The answer to terrorism does not lie in eroding democracy.

Twelve months ago the Bush Administration used September 11 to blackmail Congress (only one senator out of 100 dissented!) into passing the Patriot Act - legislation that is providing unprecedented power for law enforcement agencies in that country to arrest and detain 1200 by obtaining arrest warrants through secret court proceedings. As the noted civil liberties group Human Rights Watch has noted, "turning the presumption of innocence on its head, the Department of Justice kept 752 [of the 1200] in detention until it decided they had no links to or knowledge of terrorism."

And the Bush Administration’s Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, has not uncovered one serious al-Qaida cell, and the mystery of who sent anthrax laced letters late last year to politicians and media outlets remains unresolved, as The Guardian’s Julian Borger observed last week.


Already, under the suite of five bills passed by the Senate in late June, the Howard government has delivered the power to the courts to proscribe organisations as terrorist organisations if the UN has already done so, and to make it an offence punishable by up to 25 years in jail to even have one’s name on the books as a member.

But it is the ASIO legislation that is the most draconian in its impact on freedoms. The government has amended or withdrawn the worst aspects to it, such as the right to detain and strip search children under 14, but it still remains fundamentally undemocratic.

Under this legislation, the federal authorities can pull someone off the street, simply because they think they might be able to provide useful information - not because they suspect they have committed an offence - and hold them for up to seven days, the first 48 hours without giving them access to a lawyer. If you are detained, don’t bother asking ASIO whether you can call your relatives or employer to tell them where you are, they won’t let you. And to cap it all off, kids as young as 14 can also be detained for up to a week!

As Professor George Williams of the University of New South Wales, one of the Nation’s leading constitutional academics, has put it, this Bill "is inconsistent with basic democratic and judicial principles" because "no Australian should be detained without a trial or for a bail hearing." In fact Williams, not someone noted for hyperbole, likens the Bill to something out of Pinochet’s Chile.

The Howard government’s rhetoric on terrorism and freedom has been to force Australians to make a choice between the two, and the Bali attack will only strengthen that rhetoric. When Daryl Williams got his anti-terrorist bills through the Senate in June he noted that the Howard government "takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Australians and Australian interests". Not a word about ensuring that the terrorism doesn’t lead us down the path of erosion of democratic freedoms.

But as the Shadow Attorney-General Robert McLelland commented in a speech on September 12 this year, Williams’ logic is flawed. “There is no reason why laws which deal with terrorist acts cannot give full protection to the basic rights and freedoms which all Australians have fought hard for and have come to expect, while at the same time ensuring that there are adequate powers to deal with those people who seek to threaten those basic rights and freedoms,” McLelland said.


In ensuring there is no link between the Bali attack and attacks on our freedoms, perhaps both Labor and the Coalition should heed the words of someone who has vast experience at this game – the former head of MI 5 Dame Stella Rimington. Writing in The Guardian on September 4 this year, Rimington argued correctly that terrorism has been with us since the 1960s and that it will not be eradicated by changing the balance between liberty and safety in favour of the latter and talk of revenge by those peoples who are the victims of terror. Hopefully the Senate will understand these wise words this week as the shadow of Bali looms over it.

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This article was first published in The Age on October 15, 2002.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Greg Barns
Related Links
Australian Parliamentary research note on Terrorism
Human Rights Watch
Parliamentary E-Briefing on Bali Bombing
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