According to the papers, we have the biggest ever surplus in Australian history ($13.6 billion) and the Swans have won their first flag for 72 years. But it’s not all bread and circuses in our wide brown land.

Yesterday (Tuesday, 27 September 2005), State and Territory leaders walked into a meeting with Prime Minister John Howard to discuss his Government’s proposed tightening of ‘counter-terrorism laws,’ and apparently they all left their serious concerns about the proposed measures at the door. We can assume that either their concerns were mere bluster, or the confidential briefings from ASIO and others about the dangers to our lives and security were very, very convincing.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at <i>The Australian</i>”  ></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Either of these alternatives is not very heartening because, in the end, all that these august leaders of the community (both elected and appointed) are saying is, ‘Trust us.’

Why should we?

If, on the one hand, the State and Territory leaders were blustering without any understanding of the real situation, then I have a real problem with someone blithely playing politics in the dark. And why were these people so ill-informed about something so serious? After all, it’s been more than four years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And it’s not as if we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security since then: did I mention the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bomb attacks in Bali, Madrid, Jakarta, Manila, Istanbul, London ?

If, on the other hand, the arguments for a ‘strengthening’ of our laws of detention and arrest are so persuasive that they can convert even the most determined skeptic, then I’d like to hear those arguments, too. Why are we being kept in the dark, as presumably the Premiers and Chief Ministers were until yesterday?

I don’t expect a detailed ‘threat assessment’ from a spook or a bureaucrat. I don’t need to know the names and addresses of suspects. I don’t want to compromise any surveillance or sting operations, or even see the Australian equivalent of Dr Strangelove‘s War Room. I would just like to be informed.

Call me old-fashioned, but ‘trust us’ doesn’t quite ring true from a franchise that recently tried to sell me a dud (children overboard, weapons of mass destruction, we needed to save Iraqis from Saddam, occupying Iraq is all about al-Qaeda). And when the bureaucrats say ‘trust us’ I can’t help but think of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, and the geniuses who gave ‘Dr’ Patel a scalpel-sharpener, and the 201 other cases being investigated by Commonwealth Ombudsman, John McMillan, where the Department of Immigration got it wrong. And when the police and ASIO say ‘trust us’ my mind wanders to the summary execution of a brown-skinned Brazilian in London for well, being brown-skinned.

Control orders, preventive detention, house arrest. These are the kind of phrases used when journalists talk about the repressive regimes of Myanmar or, during the Cold War, the USSR and Eastern European bloc, or, during the apartheid era, South Africa. The rule of law, the right to liberty and the presumption of innocence: I thought these were the very things we were fighting to uphold and protect? Aren’t they the reasons we have sent young men and women into the firing line? Don’t these principles form the basis for our ‘way of life’?

There’s no doubt that the Australian people have been convinced by the Government’s general, vague arguments and by the shocking images of September 11, Bali, Madrid, London and the rest, that we are in imminent danger. Clearly, no one in the briefing room with John Howard wanted to walk out having spoiled the party and being labelled in the future (if and when a terrorist attack occurs on Australian soil) as the recalcitrant who got in the way of the laws that we should have had.

Bomber Beazley, of course, says he wants to go further than Howard. He thinks he needs to prove that he not only has ‘ticker’ he has ‘cojones’ (as el ranchero Texicano George W Bush would no doubt say). Yet again, Tweedle-Kim and Tweedle-John do a mirror dance.

Not for the first time in this saga, I find myself strangely aligned with a few lone voices in, of all places, the Liberal Party. According to a recent story by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson (SMH, September 24-25), the Prime Minister called a Liberal Party meeting in Canberra over a fortnight ago to discuss the proposed changes to the laws that were accepted yesterday by the State and Territory leaders. Marr and Wilkinson say that backbenchers at the meeting complained about the lack of detail, and ‘that they had been œambushed  and that the consultation was a œfarce. ’

In the same article, Marr and Wilkinson go on to quote part of a recent speech given by so-called Liberal dissident Petro Georgiou at La Trobe University:

civil and political rights and freedoms did not come to us in a single package, a gift from idealists in an ivory tower. They evolved out of the experiences of people who lived through turbulent and violent times, through rebellion, revolution, civil war and religious conflict. The commitment to protecting individual rights was a rejection of the arbitrary use of executive power, which had been justified as essential to the security of the state and its citizens.

Georgiou’s next sentence (not quoted by Marr and Wilkinson) is apposite:

The power was curbed because it was recognised that its exercise was corrosive to the very order that it purported to serve.

Everyone at yesterday’s meeting with John Howard agrees that the new counter-terrorism measures will be ‘draconian.’ Everyone feels that we’ve been forced into accepting these measures by serious, outside threats. Do we really have to live through a period of draconian, arbitrary use of executive power by various branches of our police and bureaucracies before we roll the measures back, realising that such use of power was corroding the very ‘way of life’ we were hoping to keep intact?

Yet another round to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Ever get the feeling that ‘our’ side is playing checkers and Osama’s playing chess?

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.