AUSTRALIA HAS an overabundance of anti-terror laws that may be doing more harm than good, a leading academic says.
Speaking at the Brain Food lecture series presented by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Alumni Association, Professor George Williams said the 40 anti-terror laws that have been enacted since September 11, 2001 — roughly one law every seven weeks — are in urgent need of review.
Williams was quick to acknowledge that legislators were obliged, both from a duty to Australians and the international community at large, to bring unprecedented anti-terror laws into effect in a short period of time.
“They do have a tough job, and my starting point is that they need to engage in these sorts of areas,” he told Lawyers Weekly, explaining that now is the time to “look back, after a bit more than five years, and say ‘we did need new laws, but in some areas we’ve gone too far, and too fast’”.
“And I think the mark of a good lawmaker is to recognise that even if the law was needed at the time, it may need revision; with the benefit of hindsight it may need better protections,” Williams said.
Of the many laws he considers in need of repair, Williams holds those dealing with surveillance and telecommunications, sedition and the new detention powers of ASIO as some of the most pressing.
“You could also point to some quite stringent changes to the criminal justice system that I think rebalance that system in a way that is quite inconsistent with traditional principles of criminal responsibility,” he said.
“Many of these laws can be justified — they just can’t be justified as to how far they go. It’s a classic case of over-reach, in a lot of the laws, where you’d say … there’s something sensible behind them, but you’ve just gone too far.”
Control orders under the new laws may also be in need of review, although Williams declined to comment on the issue, with specific reference to Jack Thomas, as he has been briefed in the case to appear in the High Court later in the year.
The UNSW professor was at pains to stress that there are many commendable features of Australia’s anti-terror laws, including “that they establish a crime of terrorism, and that they make it clear that our law rejects these forms of political violence”.
We also have a definition for ‘terrorism’ that is “better than those in many other nations, including the US and the UK, because at least it does include exceptions for things like advocacy and protest,” he said.
But overshadowing all of these laws is the question of Australia’s absent bill of rights, Williams said, which would clearly set down the right to free speech and association, among other values and principles.
Should the anti-terror laws continue to exist as they do, they may even form part of the problem, Williams said.
“If the law scares people, if people start becoming fearful of their own government, people might be less likely to come forward to the police with good intelligence or information about people in their community, or a possible terrorist attack,” he said.
“It may even be in some cases that people feel so angry or ostracised or alienated that they are more likely to take extreme action.”
The time has come for Attorney-General Philip Ruddock to take charge of the situation, he said.
“Clearly [Ruddock] has a key role to play in this — it’s his primary responsibility. All the Attorney needs to do … is to implement changes that have been recognised by independent and expert bodies, and that would be a good start.”
Williams is the Anthony Mason professor and director of the Gilbert & Tobin Centre of Public Law at the faculty of law, UNSW.