DEBATE ABOUT anti terror laws should not be portrayed as a battle between those who fight terrorism and those who defend civil liberties, the federal Shadow Attorney-General said last week.
“We can’t and shouldn’t do one without the other,” Nicola Roxon said in a speech on the Anti-Terrorism Bill (Number 2) 2005. In its unexpected backing of recent federal Government moves, Labor is supporting the need to give authorities some increased powers.
“These include, regrettably, powers to control and detain people who may not have yet committed a crime, but who are on the cusp of committing crimes of unspeakable horror,” she said.
While it would be preferable not to give the police these powers, she said, “if circumstances do force you to, then our job is to look at what is needed to tightly limit the use of these powers and the strong safeguards that must be put in place to make sure they are not misused”.
The terrorist threat does require “tough new laws”, said Roxon, “but [Labor] demands that their use be circumscribed carefully”. The Opposition is critical of the “starting point” of the Howard Government, she said, “at first failing to give any serious attention to the need to put in place strong safeguards”.
But there are aspects of the Bill that Labor does support, Roxon continued, some of which the party has advocated for some time. For example, “the Bill implements the Leader of the Opposition’s idea to introduce a uniform national regime for emergency stop and search powers, an important step that will help federal and state police co-operate where the battle against terrorism counts the most — on the ground”.
As well, the use of closed circuit television and “some parts of confronting the issue of terrorist financing” are both supported by Labor.
It is important that the law be modified specifically to suit the terrorist threat, said Roxon, arguing that the nature of terrorism demanded a new method of law enforcement, which relied on new legal tools. “The most controversial aspects of the Bill concern preventative detention and control orders. Both of these proposed regimes involve serious restrictions on the free movement of terrorist suspects. Under our normal system of law, restrictions such as these — especially those involving detention — would not be acceptable in the absence of a criminal prosecution.
“The proposed regimes are a critical conceptual departure from regular criminal law: they focus on future events not past conduct. Naturally, it is a departure anyone would prefer to avoid because it unsettles many of the principles of criminal justice that underpin our free society. But terrorism is a crime that challenges many of the assumptions that our criminal justice system rests on. The traditional emphasis on punishment and deterrent has no effect on those prepared to die in the act of killing. And because terrorists plan crimes that kill and injure on a vast scale, our police need the tools to catch terrorists before they bring their crimes to fruition.
“This is an entirely new emphasis for law enforcement, and it demands new legal tools, including the option of control orders and short-term preventative detention where these can prevent imminent terrorist attacks,” said Roxon.
But, while terrorism may demand “some departures from our traditions”, it is not an excuse for “junking them wholesale”, she said.
The Labor Party also has some significant concerns about aspects of the Bill, she said. “Labor wants the Government to allow the parliamentary process to go through the legislation with a fine tooth comb, to press for better safeguards and iron out other problems in the Bill.”
“The Government has resisted this at every step — the secrecy around early drafts, the plan to rush through debate on Cup Day and the idea of a one day senate inquiry. Piece by piece, Labor and the community have forced the Government to take just a little more time.”
As well, Labor sees problems with the proposal to give retrospective effect to the Anti-Terrorism Bill as well as the “unreasonable restrictions” on communications between detainees and families.
“The breadth and reach of the provisions relating to the advocacy and financing of terrorism” also worried the Opposition, as do “any remaining question marks over the Bill’s compliance with our Constitution and international law”.
It is essential that these matters are dealt with appropriately, she said. “Our fight against terror will not be well served by poorly drafted and ill-considered legislation. We have not been permitted sufficient time to debate these issues in the House. But, I hope at least that the Government will be open minded about recommendations that come through the Senate Committee process.”