Photographer : Brian Long
Each night, the news shows you images of explosions, civilian casualties, hijacked vehicles, kidnappings. Today, terrorism is a global threat to human rights and social progress and stability.
In response to this threat, the Australian government brought in laws aimed at strengthening our law enforcement and surveillance organisations. This means giving more power to police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to investigate people and organisations that may be involved in terrorist activities.
What is terrorism?
There is no single definition of terrorism. In general though, terrorism can be defined as political, religious or ideologically-motivated violence that causes harm to people or property. This violence is intended to manipulate the public’s thoughts and actions, or make it fearful.
Australian government’s response to terrorism
Since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, we have been confronted by the thought of terrorism on a daily basis. Politicians have responded by creating a wide range of anti-terrorist legislation (amounting to more than 40 new laws). Most of these new terrorism-related laws can be found in the federal Criminal Code Act 1995.
The laws were changed because the government believed that existing legislation was not able to handle the seriousness and complexity of terrorist offences. An act of terrorism, or even the threat of one, can seriously change the actions of the public, for example by making them avoid public transport or certain places. This ongoing and widespread public fear is the reason why the laws treat a terrorist act as being much worse than other criminal conduct. The penalty of life imprisonment for committing a terrorist act reflects this view.
The changes to Australian law aimed to specify the range and meaning of terrorist activities, groups and members, and set out specific guidelines for investigating, arresting and detaining terrorists.
The Anti-Terrorism (no.2) Act 2005 reintroduced the old-fashioned crime of sedition (the act of urging people to overthrow the Constitution or Government) as a wider and more serious crime. The crime’s penalty has been increased from three to seven years imprisonment
Changes to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 expanded ASIO’s powers to investigate terrorist suspects and activities. The new and changed laws were created to help law enforcement agencies deal with international, well-funded, and technologically-sophisticated terrorist organisations. One result of these amendments has been to expand ASIO’s power to allow them to detain and question non-suspects, as well as suspects. The amendments make it possible for intelligence officers to detain someone who may not even be a suspect for up to seven days. The intelligence officers can monitor any contact a person has with their lawyer and can even remove the right to a lawyer in certain circumstances.
How can these laws affect you?
Extensions to the Commonwealth Criminal Code mean that someone who has collected explosive materials, or any ‘thing’ connected with a terrorist act, may face up to 15 years imprisonment. This means that actions like collecting materials, downloading documents like satellite maps, photocopying documents can be an offence. This law saw a Melbourne University student investigated for having borrowed certain books from the library for a university subject.
Another student, this time from the University of Wollongong, was investigated as a result of false allegations that she attended a meeting supporting Hezbollah. Amendments to the Federal Criminal Code make it an offence to associate with someone who associates with a “terrorist” organisation (see section 102 of the Code).
The Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Act (2006) means that if you communicate with a terrorist suspect without meaning to, all your emails and SMSs (with your family, friends, doctor, lawyer, etc) can be monitored by the government.
As a final example, the sedition laws mentioned earlier make it possible for a student protest that encourages rebellion against the government to be investigated as a terrorist activity.
What the critics say
The laws have faced a lot of criticism. Some people are concerned about their impact on individual rights, like the right to freedom of expression and association, the right not to be detained except after a fair trial, and the right to silence. Critics argue in trying to protect our freedom and values from terrorism, the new laws are doing greater damage than terrorism ever could; that is to say, they argue that the balance between security and rights is not being achieved.
Protecting Australia into the future
In December 2006, a parliamentary joint committee unanimously recommended substantial changes to the laws. The committee supported the recommendations of the Security Legislation Review Committee – which included the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. If these recommendations are acted upon, we may see legal changes that satisfy the majority of critics, and at the same time, make Australians safe from terrorism.
How do I know this?
Attorney General’s Department, Australian National Security
Attorney General’s Department, Security Legislation Review Committee
Commonwealth of Australian Law, http://www.comlaw.gov.au/
Golder, B & Williams G 2006, Balancing National Security and Human Rights: Assessing the Legal Response of Common Law Nations to the Threat of Terrorism
Independent Race and Refugee News Network 2004, New study highlights discrimination in use of anti-terror laws
McDonald, E & Williams G 2006, Combating Terrorism: Australia’s Criminal Code since September 1, http://www.gtcentre.unsw.edu.au/Publications/docs/pubs/TerrorismC
Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security Legislation 2006, Review of Security and Counter Terrorism Legislation, http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/pjcis/securityleg/report.htm
Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee 2004, ‘Anti-terrorism Bill 2004’, Official Committee Hansard
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Terrorism
University of Technology Sydney Community Law Centre 2006, Be informed: ASIO and anti-terrorism laws
Williams, G 2006, ‘More than ever, watch what you say’, Sydney Morning Herald
, 3 April, http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/more-than-ever-watch-what-you-say/2006/04/02/1143916406540.html
This page was updated by Chadorama