COMPLACENCY ABOUT the threat of terrorism, and the laws enacted as a response, are sufficient reasons for Australians to regularly review the extent and breadth of government power over its citizens in the “age of terror”.
This is the view of academic Dr Andrew Lynch, who is involved in hosting a symposium at the University of New South Wales on issues of law and liberty in the war on terror in early July.
Director of the terrorism and law project at UNSW, Lynch told Lawyers Weekly that after more than five years since September 11, it is important to analyse the ongoing threat of terror to Australia and the appropriateness and effectiveness of the laws introduced as a result, even though it appears they have largely been applied “soberly and sensitively”.
“It’s very easy, I think, the further we get away from [September 11], for people to become a bit complacent about both the threat, and also whether the government is responding appropriately to it,” Lynch said.
“The purpose of the symposium then is to provide an occasion where we can have a really detailed and comprehensive discussion about how Australia is going on the domestic issues relating to preventing terrorism.”
Along with critically reviewing Australia’s terror legislation, the symposium will look to measures taken in countries such as Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. The use of control orders in the UK will be of particular interest, as Lynch believes they were influential in the formation of similar provisions in Australia.
“The [Australian] Government regularly cites the laws of the United Kingdom as an inspiration for what it does here, and a good example of that is control orders,” Lynch said.
“Yet we don’t have a really good understanding as to why control orders were seen as necessary in the UK, let alone why they are justified here where the conditions under which they were introduced are really quite different.”
Lynch said the use of control orders in the UK has highlighted the practical difficulties inherent in applying for, and monitoring them, and several orders have been tested in court challenges on the basis of their amounting to an unreasonable restriction of liberty.
This is something that may well be reflected in Jack Thomas’ constitutional challenge to be decided by the High Court. Yet unlike in the UK, which relies on the Human Rights Act 2000 as a systemic safeguard, there are no similar protections in Australia, Lynch said.
The symposium is also timely for the reason that terror laws, and the understanding of essential terms used within, are constantly evolving.
Just last week, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock introduced to Parliament a “change to the national classification scheme so as to ban materials that advocate terrorism, even though the bulk of submissions made to in response to his department’s public consultation process on this issue argued against these changes,” said Lynch.
“It superficially sounds like a great idea, but once you start curbing free expression — particularly when the definition of terrorism is inevitably so open to competing political interpretation — you run the risk that you are going to infringe people’s basic right to free communication about political matters,” he said.
“The draft Bill has, as a result of the public submission, an exemption for particular kinds of speech, but it could be clearer and the threshold of when someone is ‘praising’ terrorism is worryingly low.”
The UNSW Symposium, Law & Liberty in the War on Terror, begins 4 July.