Late last year at a public forum in Melbourne, I listened in stunned silence as a lawyer explained the ramifications of our eager, often-blind acceptance of anti-terrorism laws.
When the man from Rob Stary and Associates had completed his presentation, I asked him whether I could be charged under the laws if, for example, the police came to my home and found me, ordinary citizen Joe, reading a book about the tactics of the Tamil Tigers or Al-Qaeda.
I was taken aback when he said it was quite possible. He highlighted the example of three Tamil-born Australian men charged in 2007 under anti-terrorism laws, which were later dropped after they spent 11 weeks in custody. They were accused of sending money back to Sri Lanka to help the Tamil Tigers.
He said some concerned charitable organisations had sought clarification from the Australian Federal Police because they were sending money and other comforts to disadvantaged Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka. He said they were told that they had no problems, not because they weren’t breaking these laws but because they weren’t “the type of people” being targeted under the laws. So, according to this interpretation, these laws are so elastic that the police can stretch them as much as they like to fit victims of their choosing. A sort of one-size- fits- all-law.
As Rob Stary told ABC radio during a bail hearing for the three men: “The type of prosecutions that are embarked upon (under anti-terrorism laws) are always selective.”
Twenty years ago these laws would have been unacceptable; the mainstream media would have run campaigns and human rights groups would have maintained the rage for the entire week it would have taken to get the proposed legislation canned before it reached the parliament. Now, as the terrorism bogey haunts politicians at every turning, these dangerously restrictive laws are accepted by the mainstream media and the public with shrugs; as a necessary evil to stop our borders being invaded by terrorists in rickety boats.
Twelve years on from 9/11, the idea that we need to be observed in everything we do is now ingrained in the psyche of Australians. The more surveillance cameras you put in shopping centres and the more spies you have on the internet , the more you scare people and make them believe these things are necessary to save them from terrorism.
This has become apparent to me in the past week as I have tried to publicise the plight of the hunger strikers at the Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne – 27 refugees who have spent as long as four years in indefinite detention because they have been listed as “threats to national security” in secret ASIO reports.
It has been described by several commentators as Australia’s Guantanamo Bay, the place where genuine refugees are trapped in a legal black-hole. They are being held as no common criminal is held. There is no trial or hearing because they have committed no crime and because they cannot see the charges against them to challenge ASIO’s evidence. So under the law they remain incarcerated for life unless government steps in, and uses its overriding power to release them.
This looks like an abuse of state power. It has been rejected by the High Court and condemned by parliamentary committees and any number of independent legal practitioners.
Yet it goes on, because the politicians who helped foster the terrorism bogey are not inclined to show leadership for their own fear of being seen as soft on terrorism. They also know they have the public where they want it; ready to react like Pavlov’s dog at the mention of the words “national security threat.”
So while people lose their minds, try to commit suicide and stage mass hunger strikes in detention in suburban Melbourne, the public shuts off the empathy valve, in a similar way to those German citizens who closed their eyes to the concentration camps down the road 70 years ago.
Last week the Melbourne Herald Sun reported on the “outrage” at the decision of police not to ban protesters from celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher in the streets of London. There were no actual expressions of outrage in the story but the tone of it made it clear the Murdoch-owned newspaper was certainly outraged that police weren’t willing to break the law to stop protests against Thatcherism.
The public’s acquiescence has emboldened government and big corporate interests to push the envelope way beyond previously-accepted standards in a democracy. Today Government power just keeps on expanding as people become putty in politicians’ hands — as I discovered last week.
The best view of the hunger strikers was found from the car park of a factory that backs on to the detention centre. It was from there that an enterprising SBS reporter and camera crew managed to interview them on the first day of the protest.
I went to the same factory the next day to check the access. As I parked my car, a manager hurriedly emerged from the factory and ordered me off the premises. “So the Immigration Department has told you not to let people come and look?” I asked. “That’s right,” he said gruffly.
I can’t see how it’s the business of the Immigration Department to intervene but I understand why they do it. It’s why they chased a Channel 10 crew from the public surrounds of MITA last Wednesday, why they hung blankets and green cloth over the cyclone wire fences behind the factory and why they now close the blinds even in day time in the visitors’ area at MITA to stop people seeing the hunger-strike outside.
If they pull up the blinds and let in the media, they fear we will discover that refugees are decent human beings deserving of our help, not our cruelty, and then the politicians will be stripped of their credibility.
They know the prevailing culture of fear has given them a licence to do what they want, and they have no intention of wasting such a grand opportunity.
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