Words by Emma Vlatko
“Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.”
(Tony Abbott, 22nd September, 2014)
The Government is calling for Team Australia to be alert but not alarmed. In response to the escalating threat of Islamic State militants, the second of three new counter-terrorism law amendment packages has been introduced, passing through parliament with bipartisan support.
Objectors of the bill, the Greens and some key independents, have called the move “a gagging of debate.” They argue that the speed in which the amendments were rammed through both houses of parliament did not allow for any proper debate or scrutiny.
“I think this Parliament is being bullied to pass something in the heat of a national security crisis that we will later regret,” Greens Senator, Scott Ludlam told Fairfax Media.
But both the Government and Opposition say these changes were necessary. Speaking in press conference, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said his party would support the changes because “Labor believes our security agencies and national institutions should have the powers and resources they need to keep Australians safe from the threat of terrorism…”
So just what are these changes? Why are they so controversial? And will they really stop the terrorists?
Firstly, the changes expand what is considered to be a “terrorist act offence.” Now, a person can commit a crime if they plan or prepare, finance, provide or receive training for terrorist acts, or they advocate for terrorism.
The amendments also mean that the Australian Police may be able to arrest someone, without a warrant, merely for suspecting (on reasonable grounds) that the person has committed, or is committing a terrorism offence.
Whilst the Government was quick to assure the public that the expansion of these offences was, “a law of general application,” deputy Greens leader, Adam Bandt, was unmoved. In a speech he said the changes overstep what is required. “The Parliament is dangerously close to giving the government unprecedented powers that would treat every Australian as a suspect.”
Secondly, under these proposed packages, those who travel to “declared areas” (where terrorist groups operate) could face five years in jail if they cannot provide a valid reason for visiting, such as aid work.
Critics, including the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, have slammed this change, labelling it unprecedented and draconian. “It appears to curtail not only freedom of movement but also the right to silence and the presumption of innocence,” Dreyfus said.
Thirdly, journalists can now be jailed for up to 5 years for disclosing information on covert intelligence operations, and up to 10 years if that disclosure endangers lives. Reporters cannot escape prosecution by claiming their disclosure was in the public interest. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) said these changes, “overturned the public’s right to know.”
“The Bill muzzles the media from doing its job,” MEAA federal secretary Christopher Warren said. “It treats every Australian as a threat and denies their rights of access to information and freedom of expression.”
The introduction of S35P also means that anyone, including journalists, whistleblowers, bloggers and tweeters alike, could be jailed for disclosing any information relation to a special intelligence operation.
Lastly, if considered necessary, ASIO officers now have the power to add, copy, delete or alter any data on any computer. They also now, theoretically, only require one search warrant for the “entire internet.” The Greens also vehemently opposed this amendment, arguing for a limit of 20 devices to be included in one warrant. But Senator Brandis rejected this, calling their amendments unworkable.
Putting aside the semantics, these laws have brought instant – tangible – change to the Australian community. Security has been visibly increased in government buildings and at public events; Parliament House is now in virtual lockdown; And a series of high profile anti-terror raids, including one that left an 18 year old man dead, have left neighbours more terrified than ever.
However, whether these laws have made our society safe… only time will tell.