THE LAW Council of Australia placed advertisements in the nation’s major broadsheets on Monday, in a final assault against the Australian Government’s proposed anti-terror laws.
Law Council president John North said the only way to “fix” the laws was to “scrap” them, and the advertisements had been devised to “galvanise interest” in the Senate and amongst the Australian public. It was hoped they would ensure pressure would be applied to the Government in relation to the anti-terror Bill.
The advertising campaign was an eleventh hour move at a time when passage of the Bill looked certain, despite opposition from members of parliament from both sides, civil libertarians and the legal profession.
North told Lawyers Weekly that although the nation was facing the “political reality” that the bills could soon be passed, the advertisements also served to notify “the Government and the Opposition, as well as the Australian people, that the lawyers of Australia will be closely monitoring these laws, which permit citizens to be held without charge”.
The advertisements feature a copy of a letter sent to Prime Minister John Howard by North on behalf of the Law Council on 3 November, and the statement: “John Howard, you haven’t replied to this letter”.
“The Government is using the threat of terrorism to introduce laws that put our most basic civil liberties under threat. The ramifications have the potential to be as terrifying as terrorism itself,” the advertisement continued.
North said the LCA was very concerned about the scope of the anti-terrorism laws, but was even more disturbed by “the manner in which the Howard Government has gone about ramming these extraordinary laws through parliament”.
“We cannot understand the need for such haste, secrecy and lack of consultation,” he said.
“These proposed laws are so serious the Government, with its majority, need not have been afraid to widely circulate and discuss the impact. Now we believe this Bill, when it becomes law, might be susceptible to a Constitutional challenge.”
Concessions made by Howard to secure the Bill’s passage failed to appease the Law Council, and North said while there had been some positive amendments, the overall effect of the legislation was still bad. “The only way to fix it is to scrap it.”
If that did not happen, North said, the Government should at least withdraw the sedition sections, as suggested by the Senate Committee, which included government senators. “The community will be gagged, with public debate potentially stifled. People can be pulled off the street, locked up for 14 days and held without charges being laid.”
North described as “nonsensical” Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s assurances that an inquiry would be held into the sedition provisions next year.
“It is nonsensical to enact legislation with a proviso that it will be scrutinised at a later date. This portrays the indecent haste with which the Government has proceeded.”
The Law Council’s view was summed up in its advertisements by the Benjamin Franklin quote, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
Asked if he believed the Australian public had been negligibly apathetic on the issue of the anti-terror legislation, North said it would take “the undoubted abuse or misuse of this legislation to wake up the public”, an eventuality that he hoped would not be too serious.
“The legal profession will spring to the defence of any journalist or legitimate protestor who [falls] foul of these new laws and no doubt there will be a challenge to the High Court when people are actually held in custody without trial,” he said.