Speak no evil – security law in action


The harsh internal security laws passed by the Howard government have neither strengthened Australia nor improved Australians’ sense of security. Rather, they have contributed to division in our community and weakened our social fabric.

Members of particular ethnic or religious communities – Arabic and Islamic, for example – feel as though they are under siege, suspicion and scrutiny. Other Australians are looking warily over their shoulders at their neighbours, and at everyone else.

Amongst other things, the new laws allow ASIO to instigate the detention and questioning of people who may have useful information in relation to terrorism. The exercise of this power is not limited to terrorism suspects or criminals. It can be applied to anyone.

Despite the safeguards Labor negotiated before passing these laws, it’s already clear that these protections don’t work well enough in practice.

A number of people who have been approached by ASIO and ‘encouraged’ to assist them with their enquiries have complained to the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties Inc (NSWCCL). They have said that they fear that being – or being seen to be – uncooperative will lead to ASIO using the new powers to arrest, detain and question them; yet these are powers that should only be used in the most serious of circumstances.

The NSWCCL has also assisted with aspects of the defence of four people who are now terror suspects, or who have been charged with offences under anti-terrorism legislation. A fundamental problem in those cases is that these people are unable to speak out in their own defence. This is despite others commenting in the media about the merits of the investigation, the evidence and the case against them.

The new laws provide that a person who has been the subject of a warrant who discusses ‘operational matters’ with anyone apart from their lawyer – including a member of their own family – could be held guilty of an offence, punishable by a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. Under this system, government ministers and law enforcement officials are free to leak details of an investigation to the media, but the person who is the subject of the allegations or charges (and their lawyer) are unable to defend themselves publicly.

These developments should concern every Australian.

Partly because of lack of mainstream media and political attention to the content and potential – never mind actual – consequences of these new laws, however, most Australians have no idea of their rights and responsibilities under the new security laws. Most people have no idea what they can or can’t, should or shouldn’t do if ASIO knocks on the door. Most people don’t even know who the banned terrorist organisations are that they should keep away from.

NSWCCL has worked with other groups including the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network and the Community Law Centre at the University of Technology Sydney, to produce a booklet called Terrorism Laws: ASIO, the Police and You. The booklet aims to help all Australians by providing basic information about Australia’s new internal security legislation.

Download your free copy and keep it for ready reference. Maybe stick it next to the government’s Be Alert, Not Alarmed fridge magnet.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.