Australia’s New Terror Laws And What They Mean

A series of events in Australia in the last few days have quite frankly left me reeling in shock and surprise. The first was an incident where an 18-year- old boy was shot dead by police. Technically he’s a man but I call him a boy. A boy who was foolish and very naïve. A brain washed jihadist. A supporter of ISIL, a Muslim extremist group, which wants to destroy all of us for no reason other than, who we are and how we live. He came to the attention of authorities for some of the things he was saying on social media like wanting to behead police, drape their bodies in the ISIS flag and post the images online. He also made death threats against the Australian Prime Minister.

Very surprisingly and quite ironically the police decided to deal with this by taking a fairly low, key approach. Instead of a dawn raid and arresting him at gunpoint they invited him to come and see them at the police station. They arranged a time and he turned up to be met by two officers outside the station. What happened next will become the subject of an official inquiry. But it appears when one of the policemen tried to shake his hand in greeting, the 18-year-old produced a knife and began hacking at the two policemen. It is believed, one of the policemen fired a single, fatal shot at the 18-year-old. It was both tragic and senseless.

This young boy was seen talking with older men before this incident occurred which supports the idea he was not acting alone. He first came to the attention of police and intelligence authorities, three months ago, because he was part of a small group of men sharing messages, preaching violence and hate. Authorities were concerned he may try to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq so they cancelled his passport.

The second disturbing report was an allegation of a second, separate attack on a serving member of the Australian Army who was walking along the street minding his own business. The catalyst for the attack was the fact that he was wearing the Australian Army uniform. In a recent development, police are now saying the attack didn’t happen but it was enough for Australian Defence Force Chiefs to issue an order for defence force personnel not to wear their uniform in public. Reports of these two incidents coincide with ISIL using social media to call on its supporters to attack indiscriminately. They were told they do not need the authority of a senior Muslim cleric, they should just go ahead and wage jihad and God was on their side. These people seem to be under the illusion we are back in the Middle Ages fighting some sort of mythical crusade. Muslim versus Christian. What is most disturbing is the number of young Muslim men, in Western countries who believe in this nonsense. What worries me the most about these developments is it could end up being a double-edged sword. We need to be worried about radicalised Jihadists but equally we should also be worried about whack jobs who want to attack Muslims for being Muslim. There’ve been reported incidents of vandalism and graffiti but fortunately no violence.

Here is a small reality check.

The vast majority of Muslims in Australia, or anywhere else in the world are not defined by what the Islamic State does in Iraq and Syria. They are peace-loving people who believe in tolerance, benevolence and humanity. As President Obama quite correctly pointed out, No God condones terror.

But there is no denying these incidents frighten people and when people are frightened they lose perspective and forget to think and respond rationally.

And what usually follows is another unfortunate by-product – the rights and freedoms that we have come to expect and accept are suddenly under threat.

The Australian Prime Minister said as much the other day. In a speech clearly aimed at softening up the country he said some freedoms needed to be sacrificed in order to protect the vast majority. He asked Australians to support this shift in what he called the delicate balance between freedom and security. We are only just beginning to find out what this actually means. In Federal Parliament a bill was passed giving Australia’s domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, unprecedented and unfettered power to monitor the entire Australian internet. All that is needed is one warrant. The bill passed with bi-partisan support so the Opposition clearly agrees with the Government. ASIO will be permitted to copy, delete or modify data held on any computer it has a warrant to monitor. It also allows ASIO to disrupt target computers and use innocent third-party computers, not targeted, as a way of accessing targeted computers. Many lawyers and academics are saying this bill goes too far. Australian Attorney-General George Brandis says we all better get used to living in what he called this “newly dangerous age.” It is vital he said to equip those protecting Australia with the necessary powers and capabilities needed to do their job.

That’s all well and good but what about the checks and balances? Where are they? How can we be sure that ASIO won’t abuse these massive new powers? And if you are worried about these questions, and you should be, then what I am about to say should make you even more worried. The bill also allows for journalists, whistle-blowers and bloggers who “ recklessly” disclose information that relates to a special intelligence operation ,to be jailed for ten years. Get this. Any operation can be declared to be “special” by an ASIO agent. It also gives ASIO immunity from criminal and civil liability in certain circumstances. In other words it makes them pretty much untouchable.

Now don’t get my wrong. I am all for giving law enforcement the powers they need to do their job but that doesn’t mean they have an open checkbook. And going after whistleblowers and journalists providing the necessary balance, threatening them with a hefty prison sentence, is not a good thing in a democratic country. It is very much the case of shooting the messenger. Of course with the threat of a ten-year prison sentence hanging over them, whistleblowers will become extinct. I’m sure that is exactly what Governments around the world want to happen. I’m sorry but I don’t trust ASIO not to abuse its powers. Unless we have something or someone keeping a watchful eye out on behalf of us all there is a danger that the so-called cure could end up being far worse than the disease.

Australia’s Draconian Laws

One of the cornerstones of any healthy democracy must be free speech and freedom of the press.

But it seems not in Australia and not anymore. The Abbott Government is charting a course that’s hellbent on stifling both. And, if you are looking for a reason you need go no further than Julian Assange, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

They are almost certainly responsible for a set of leaked documents floating around  that appear to suggest corruption involving Australia and some senior Asian politicians. I say appears to be, because the documents have been the subject of a Victorian Supreme Court  gagging order so we don’t really know what’s in them.

But whatever it is the mere public mention of them was enough for the Indonesian President to demand yet another please explain from the Australian Government. And clearly, the Government has had enough of doing embarrassing explanations and apologies to the Indonesians.

Especially after the Snowden revelation that proved Australian spy agencies were listening in on the private telephone conversations of the Indonesian President and his wife.

So now, what the Abbott Government wants to do is well and truly shoot the messenger.

The Government has legislation before parliament that threatens Australian Security Intelligence Organisation leakers with 10 years’ imprisonment.

It also makes it an offence for journalists to report on information they receive from whistleblowers.

Edward Snowden’s lawyer has quite correctly labelled this as “draconian” and “chilling” because it will ‘criminalise a reporter talking to a source.”

Lawyer Jesselyn Radack said : “It’s the most draconian thing I’ve seen and it is completely antithetical to a free and open democratic society … I find it very disturbing that Australia’s entertaining this kind of legislation and that there hasn’t been a greater outcry, especially from the press.”

So what does this legislation actually do?

For a start you will be breaking the law if a person “discloses information … [that] relates to a special intelligence operation.”

And there are no exemptions, meaning it could apply to anyone including journalists, bloggers, lawyers and other members of the public. Anyone who discloses this kind of information faces tough new penalties of up to 10 years’ jail.

Ms Radack makes a crucial point in saying the new laws will essentially give ASIO, the Australian equivalent of the CIA, blanket immunity.

“This particular proposed legislation is drafted so broadly that almost anything could be labelled a special intelligence operation … the definitions are so broad and vague as to make anyone subject to this.”

Former US National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake, who fought the United States Government and won said these proposed laws would result in self-censorship.

“If this passes in its current form without huge changes, it is going to send a very chilling message,” Mr Drake said. “It will create a climate in which people will self-censor. They will opt not to reveal anything. They will opt not to associate with certain individuals. They will opt not to share certain information just on the risk that it might be designated secret or it might be designated something that might reveal an intelligence operation. Well in that kind of an environment guess what? It has its intended effect.”

Australia’s Federal Attorney-General Senator George Brandis has previously said that the new offences were not aimed at journalists.

“It’s not the purpose of this bill to place any constraints at all on freedom of discussion,” he said.

“We are a government that believes very strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

Yeah. Right.