Labor Leaders Back Howard’s Police-State Laws

A government-sponsored antiterrorism poster displayed at a bus stop in Sydney, Australia, in the aftermath of the London bombings. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood / AFP-Getty Images)

In the face of growing criticism from lawyers, civil liberties groups and even some Coalition backbenchers of the proposed new “anti-terrorism” laws, Prime Minister John Howard called a special media conference in Canberra on Nov. 2 at which he gave the impression that his government had received information indicating that there was an imminent terrorist threat in Australia.

“The government has received specific intelligence and police information this week which gives cause for serious concern about a potential terrorist threat,” Howard announced. He then said it was necessary for the parliament to pass an amendment to the existing anti-terrorism laws within 36 hours.

The amendment, Howard said, would “clarify that it is not necessary for the prosecution to identify a specific terrorist act,” adding: “We have been given advice that if this amendment is enacted as soon as possible the capacity of the authorities to respond will be strengthened. And I am satisfied on what I have been told, and the government and the national security ministers in cabinet are satisfied, that that is the case, but I do not intend and cannot and will not go into any of the operational details.”

As with his claims in February 2003 about having “credible intelligence” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed an “imminent threat,” Howard refused to reveal details of the claimed terrorist threat. “We have seen material. It is a cause of concern,” was all he would venture.

Howard admitted that he had not yet received any information that would require a change in the general terrorism threat level. Furthermore, Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister John Stanhope told reporters later the same day that the “National Counter-Terrorism Committee, which is the committee which essentially represents each of the states on the national infrastructure or arrangements to address terrorism or counter-terrorism issues in Australia, hadn’t been notified of the threat and still has not been activated … So around Australia, none of counter-terrorism infrastructure has been activated as a result of” Howard’s announcement.

The amendment, immediately agreed to by federal Australian Labor Party leader Kim Beazley and passed by the Senate the next day, removes the need for government prosecutors to provide evidence that terrorism suspects planned to carry out any specific terrorist attack. It will make it harder for defense lawyers to defend terrorism suspects.

On Oct. 31, John von Doussa, president of the government’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, issued a statement likening the new laws proposed in the government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill (2005) to those of a “police state.” Despite this, on the same day, Beazley urged the federal Labor caucus to support the passage of the bill “in the national interest.”

All six Labor premiers have indicated they are willing to sign off on the proposed new laws. On Nov. 2, New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma announced that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Howard in the “fight against terrorism,” adding that the draft legislation “will have the extra safeguards that we have insisted on all along to protect individual rights and we will have the tough new laws on terror that are needed.”

South Australian Premier Mike Rann told ABC Radio National: “These laws would only be applied in the most extraordinary circumstances from an enemy from within or an external attack on Australia. And so therefore you have to be tough but you can’t pussyfoot around with mass murderers and that’s who terrorists are.

“So my view is we’ve now got the balance right, and that I’m prepared to give in-principle agreement. The legislation will include judicial review but will still be tough legislation because tough legislation is what is needed to deal with the threat of terrorism.”

Most of the criticism publicized by the corporate media of the government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill (2005) has concentrated on its granting to the Australian Federal Police of powers to secretly detain terrorism suspects and witnesses or place them under indefinite “control orders” without charges.

However, under the cover of introducing new laws against terrorism, the bill includes amendments to the sedition laws in the federal Crimes Act that will give the government sweeping powers to criminalize peaceful political dissent.

Under the existing sedition laws it is a crime, punishable by three years’ imprisonment, to intentionally “excite disaffection against the government or constitution” of Australia or “against either house of the parliament”; or to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of her majesty’s subjects so as to endanger the peace, order or good government” of Australia.

The amendments to the Crimes Act would make it an offence, punishable by seven years’ imprisonment, to intentionally “urge disaffection against” the Australian constitution, the federal government or either house of the federal parliament and “to promote feelings of ill-will or hostility between different groups so as to threaten the peace, order and good government of” Australia.

Under the old law, a person was committing a seditious act if their opinions, expressed orally or in print, had an effect on others — “excited” disaffection with the government. The amended law would make it a criminal offence to “urge disaffection” with the government even if this urging has no effect on others.

Sedition law has always been used by governments to criminalize the expression of dissident political views. Thus, both the Chifley Labor and Menzies Coalition governments used the sedition law as one element of their campaigns against the Communist Party in the late 1940’s and early 1960’s.

Under Ben Chifley’s Labor government, which also set up the Australian Security Intelligence Organization secret police agency, three members of the Communist Party were given prison sentences in 1949 for expressing unpopular political views. One occurred in an orderly public debate, while the other in a number of conversations held with a journalist.

Bob Menzies’ Coalition government used the sedition laws in an unsuccessful prosecution of a Communist Party member in 1953.

The last person prosecuted under Australia’s sedition laws was Brian Cooper, a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea, then under Australian colonial rule. He was charged and convicted in 1960 because — in Pidgin English — “he advisedly spoke and published seditious words” when urging “the natives” to demand P.N.G.’s independence from Australia. He lost his appeal to the High Court of Australia and committed suicide.

The sedition laws fell into disuse with the rise in the late 1960’s of mass movement against the Australian Defense Force’s participation in the U.S. war against Vietnam, during which public statements of political sympathy and solidarity with the Vietnamese national liberation fighters were quite common.

Under the proposed new sedition laws such statements would be unlawful. The government proposes to make it an offence, punishable by seven years’ imprisonment, for “any person” who “urges another person to engage in conduct to assist, by any means whatever, an organization or country … engaged in armed hostilities against the Australian Defense Force.”

On Feb. 20, 2003, only a few days after a million Australians had participated in peaceful marches to protest against his government’s planned participation in the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of oil-rich Iraq, Howard told reporters that anti-war “demonstrations do give comfort” — i.e., moral assistance — “to the Iraqi leadership, there’s no doubt about that.”

On Nov. 1, Howard told reporters that “there’s no way that these sedition laws will in any way curtail legitimate free speech.” However, Howard’s Feb. 20, 2003, remarks indicate that for his government, “legitimate free speech” does not even extend to peaceful demonstrations that “give comfort” to those preparing to resist unprovoked Australian military aggression against their country.

Originally published Nov. 9.