- A further boost to Australia's political police agencies,
including unprecedented powers to secretly detain people without charge,
has become a major item in the Howard government's agenda for the new
year. At its last cabinet meeting for 2001, on December 18, the government
approved 'a raft of measures' under the pretext of combatting terrorism.
It also announced a summit of federal and state government leaders in
March to strengthen and possibly restructure the police and intelligence
Attorney-General Daryl Williams provided only vague outlines of the new
powers. Moreover, none of the proposed legislation has been released. But
is already clear that the planned measures will make deeper inroads into
basic democratic rights than ever before, except under wartime emergency
The cabinet confirmed a plan, first unveiled in the wake of the September
11 attacks in the United States, to allow the Australian Security Intelligence
Organisation (ASIO) to detain and interrogate for 48 hours anyone that
it suspects of involvement in terrorism or of having any information about
terrorism. Detainees will be held incommunicado, unable to contact their
families, and denied access to legal advice or representation. ASIO will
not have to specify a charge, or produce evidence, yet any prisoner who
refuses to answer its questions can be jailed for five years.
Working in conjunction with state and federal police, ASIO will be able
to have people picked up, brought before a tribunal and ordered to provide
information or hand over documents, even if they are not themselves suspected
of terrorist activity. These provisions could easily be used against journalists
and political activists.
These measures tear up long-standing protections against arbitrary government
power, including no detention without charge, the right to remain silent
and the principles of natural justice (the right to a fair hearing). Civil
liberties groups have warned that innocent people could easily be detained,
and detained repeatedly, creating the conditions for assaults and forced
According to Williams, ìterrorismî will be re-defined so that
it includes an act or omission ìfor a political, religious or ideological
purpose designed to intimidate the public with regard to its security
and intended to cause serious damage to persons, property or infrastructureî.
The Criminal Code will also cover aiding, abetting, conspiracy, attempt
and incitement, with all these offences carrying a maximum penalty of
These provisions are so sweeping that they could cover a range of dissenting
political activity, including protests and the distribution of literature.
Moreover, collection, receipt or provision of funds for the preparation
and planning of terrorism, or knowingly assisting any of these activities,
will be punishable by up to 25 years jail.
ASIO and other intelligence and police agencies will be given powers to
access unread e-mails, allowing them to act on the basis of messages that
the alleged recipient has not even seen. They will also be permitted to
share information on terrorism and alleged financial links with equivalent
agencies overseas. ASIO will receive extra funding and resources, unspecified
as yet, and ìcabinet will give further consideration to a range
of additional measuresî in the new year.
Over the past two decades, ASIO has already been handed powers to tap phones,
intercept e-mail and mail, plant tracking devices on people or vehicles
and instal listening devices in offices and homes. It can easily obtain
secret search and entry warrants, and physically or electronically break
into computer files and databases.
Williams admitted that ìthere remains no known specific threat of
terrorism in Australiaî. This is despite well-publicised ASIO raids
of homes in Sydney's Arabic and Islamic community immediately after September
11 raids that resulted in no charges or evidence of terrorism.
The Attorney-General claimed that the new powers would be used only rarely
and with strict safeguards. "ASIO's definitely not becoming a secret
police," he said, adding that the government did not ìenvisage
the power to detain without arrest could be used in any but the most extraordinarily
These assurances fly in the face of the record, not just of ASIO's recent
raids but its long history of spying on, harassing and conducting dirty
tricks operations against socialists, militant workers and others, even
church groups and Labor politicians, regarded as opponents of the political
Various federal and state inquiries conducted in the 1970s proved that
ASIO and the state police special branches with which it collaborated,
kept extensive files on the activities and personal lives of members and
supporters of left-wing organisations, trade unions and anti-war groups.
Civil Liberties Council of New South Wales spokesman Cameron Murphy said
the extended powers were unwarranted. "We need to be very careful
because once the imminent crisis is over in terrorism, what weíll
find is that ASIOís attention will focus on innocent members of
the Australian public." Australian Council for Civil Liberties president
Terry O'Gorman said similar measures used in Britain against the IRA had
led to "false confessions becoming the order of the day."
International Commission of Jurists Australian president John Dowd said
the detention powers would represent the first time outside war that agencies
were given such powers. Having been detained once, there was no obvious
block to people being detained repeatedly. "What happened in the
United States is not a justification for giving ASIO these massive extensions
This is not the first time that governments have seized upon the alleged
threat of terrorism to expand ASIO's powers. The first ASIO Act was passed
in 1979, in the wake of the 1978 attempted bombing of the Hilton Hotel
in Sydney during a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The federal
Fraser government, joined by the state Wran government, declared that
'the age of terrorism' had arrived in Australia. That bombing has remained
unsolved to this day, but it led to two police frame-ups of members of
the Ananda Marga religious sect. Sect members spent years in jail before
the frame-ups were exposed, leaving all the evidence pointing to the bomb
having been planted by ASIO itself, or another police agency.
In 1999, the Howard government cited fears of terrorism at the Sydney 2000
Olympic Games to give ASIO further sweeping powers. No terrorist activity
eventuated, but ASIO's powers, including to hack into computers, access
taxation files and plant secret tracking devices, have remained. The government
also used the Games as a pretext to pass legislation providing for the
military to be called out against domestic political unrest.
Both in 1979 and 1999, these measures were implemented with the full support
of the Labor Party, which first established ASIO in 1949 during a coal
minersí strike. Without even waiting to see the new legislation,
the Labor leaders have stated their agreement in principle with the Howard
governmentís proposals. This is consistent with their stance during
the recent election campaign. Labor's then leader, Kim Beazley, sought
to outbid the government by releasing his own 11-point package to boost
the powers and resources of ASIO and the military.