Why We Should Be Reluctant To Give Police And ASIO More Powers


The first terror-related death on Australian soil tragically occurred this week in Melbourne. A young man shot dead after attacking two officers with a knife outside a suburban police station. Police say the dead youth was known to them, and that his assault of the officers was unprovoked.

In the days before the fatal incident in Melbourne, television footage of federal police officers armed with automatic rifles guarding Parliament House in Canberra made for a discomforting sight.

This unprecedented move is, we are told, based on some overheard telephone “chatter” that may, or may not, relate to a real and credible threat to the lives of politicians or visitors to the nation’s capital.

In the past two to three weeks the Australian public has been slowly, but surely boiled like a frog to the point that our worst imagined fears seem all too real.

Now, in the wake of the Melbourne shooting of what the media seemingly delights in calling a “known terror suspect”, even though the young man was guilty of no crime, we can expect to see more calls for more police powers and new surveillance and detention powers will almost certainly pass through Parliament largely unopposed.

Tony Abbott and several of his senior security officials have drip fed the idea of a clear and present danger to Australian lives to a compliant media. The stories have been duly repeated; the raids orchestrated for the cameras and the serious press conferences held. The national security media has been briefed; it has recorded the messages; downloaded the talking points and repeated them back to us with a suitable tone of fear and loathing (aimed squarely at Australia’s tiny Middle Eastern Muslim population).

I don’t doubt for a minute that there are Australians serving with Daesh and al Qaida or its offshoots in Syria and Iraq. No doubt others wish to emulate their mujahedeen brothers and sisters and become ‘shaheed’ [martyrs]to the cause of fundamentalist Islam. There are others here, at home, whose passions have been roused by the attention they are getting from ASIO – passports being cancelled, constant visits from the AFP and round-the-clock surveillance of their movements and their phone calls.

But I also don’t doubt for a minute that there are similarly deranged members of Abbott’s “Team Australia” who harbour similar murderous thoughts and are capable of issuing death threats and perhaps even carrying them out.

What I worry about is that the overwhelming police response is aimed at members of Australia’s Middle Eastern, Muslim minority and that the white supremacist, bigoted racist wallies who want to burn mosques and attack young Muslim women in the street, are being left to foment their own special kind of trouble.

The police response so far – 800 heavily armed officers to arrest a couple of handfuls of suspects, most of whom have been released without charge – seems more than a little disproportionate to the actual threat level.

It also seems, looking from the outside, that current operational and intelligence gathering powers are adequate to protecting the population from any threat that home grown jihadis might represent.

The idea that Daesh can attack Australia from its bases in Syria and Iraq is a fantasy; or worse, it is deliberate scare mongering by the government aided and abetted by the national security media.

With one or two exceptions, the mainstream media has been almost totally silent when it comes to any critique of the rush to ramp up policing and surveillance powers. The most frequently reported criticism is not that this is a gross over-reaction and a threat to civil liberties; it is from the police and politicians who say the powers don’t go far enough.

There is plenty to criticize about the fear-based campaign to increase warrantless phone taps, data retention, preventative detention without habeas corpus and heavily-armed police confronting a shibboleth on the steps of Parliament House, but you won’t read about it in most of our daily newspapers and not even Leigh Sales wants to go there on the usually reliable ABC.

However, we do need to be careful about readily agreeing to more police powers, less freedom of movement and even more surveillance by CCTV or data sweeps of telecommunications, social media and our internet browsing habits.

What we have witnessed in the past month or so is the government systematically creating the idea that there is a credible threat to Australia from Islamic militants. Unfortunately, the majority of journalists have gone along with this and accepted the manufactured threat. The dovetailing of Abbott’s careful strategy of spoon-feeding tidbits to The Australian over several months has forced the rest of the media to play catch up. This has kept alive the idea that “our” way of life is under threat from dangerous external and internal enemies. In this way repression is justified in the interests of security.

When the national security media colludes with politicians and the institutions of state power, it is a form of self-imposed censorship. To support this level of secrecy and deceit in public affairs is the worst failure of journalistic norms.

The scrutiny that the news media should be focusing on – calls for more police powers and tougher security laws – is missing. In its place we get excited insiders falling over themselves to be at the front of the queue lining up to embed with Australian forces in the Middle East.

The choices facing us as a nation are not given adequate and thoughtful consideration in this climate. The inevitable, and historically proven, backlash against Australia for leaping into another war in Iraq (and, it seems, Syria) is being ignored. Peaceful alternatives to dealing with what is a very low level of threat both overseas and in Australia are dismissed as appeasement. War is presented as the only solution.

The idea that if democratic values cannot be sustained by open means, then they are already failing, is not countenanced by politicians or the media. By the same argument, if it is necessary – as Tony Abbott asserts – that rights to privacy, personal liberty and freedom must be curtailed by disproportionate security measures to ensure safety then the system has already proven that it is not worth preserving.

Specious calls for more security measures and more security technology will only achieve by erosion what the terrorists would seek to achieve by violence.

Police, spies and security agencies will always seek to extend their powers and to operate at the very limit of what is legally permissible. This is a well-known fact of the politics of policing. The former chief of London’s Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Mark, wrote in his autobiography, In the Office of Constable, that he believed in subtle use of extra-judicial police powers.

He said: “I am one of those who believe that if the criminal law and the procedures relating to it were applied strictly according to the book, as a means of protecting society it would collapse in few days.” He was writing in the late 1970s and had this to say about dealing with the IRA: “we would not let any legal niceties prevent us from dealing with terrorism”.

Are we prepared to accept assurances that senior police officers today have changed their views?  I for one think it would be unwise to assume so. There is enough evidence, both locally and internationally, for us to be at least a little bit wary of police claims that they always behave ethically; dissembling, sanctioned violence, intimidation and even perjury are common, institutionalized and routine police procedures in many jurisdictions, including in Australia.

There is a mindset in many police forces – and ours are no exception – that politicians and civil libertarians hold them back, refusing to sanction the real powers they need to get the job done.

This inherent desire for more and stronger powers – of arrest, detention, investigation and interrogation of suspects – is linked to a very authoritarian ideology and a belief that the views of the police hierarchy are representative of the majority.

In this context any opposition to calls for tougher laws and police powers is seen as aiding the (criminal) enemy and antithetical to good policing. It is this worldview that provides a self-justification for going beyond the ‘rules’, not doing things ‘by the book’ and for misconduct being overlooked if it is deemed to be (by the police themselves) in the ‘national interest’.

The rationale for giving police more powers – such as preventative detention, secret searches and more – are not really justified. There is no evidence historically that such actions in the past have led to more detection or prevention of crime. Why would we just accept that it is so in relation to terrorist activities? There is no credible research that supports the idea that giving police the right to detain people for longer, or when they have not yet committed crime, will prevent terrorist attacks.

On the other hand, the arguments for blindly handing more authority and more power to the police and security services are fraught with danger. We know that any extra powers will be pushed to their limits, if not beyond, and that they will be used in circumstances for which they were not initially intended, or granted for.

Do we want to see preventative detention pushed to the point where it can (and will) be used simply to impose inconvenience on objectionable members of the public, such as student protestors, or opponents of government policy? Any promise made by the current government that this won’t happen should be laughed at and howled down.

We should never forget that a strong police force and a well-policed society are not the same thing. We should also remember that security technologies – whether legislative, analogue or digital – cannot be relied upon as effective forms of crime prevention.

In general, it can be argued that security technologies make us less secure by generating a false sense of security. Handing over extra powers to the police and security services represents a departure from the basic and necessary values of a free and open society.

Just as we cannot liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from Daesh by bombing their cities and bridges, their hospitals and their homes, we cannot protect our freedoms or our way of life by handing over more and unscrutinised power to the shadowy figures in the state security apparatus.

We have been preconditioned by a clever and insidious government propaganda campaign duly amplified and repeated by an ignorant and compliant news media, into believing there is a genuine threat to Australian society from a handful of crazy hardcore Islamist.

The threat is nowhere near as great as the government would have us believe, but it provides an excuse for Abbott and co to argue for a beefed up powerful security regime. To a population that has been badly served by an uncritical media, that has failed to do its job of scrutinizing rather than acting like a cheer squad for Team Australia, a tough stance on terrorism is superficially attractive.

The political right – including the current government – has a natural authoritarian affinity with aggressive policing and security technologies (despite its libertarian pretensions).

There is a strong conservative streak in both major political parties, which valorize traditional values and law and order campaigns. A confused public might be lulled into accepting their arguments, fearful of an unknowable alternative and without the evidence to reject the subtle lies and outright propaganda.

A society scared of the shadow of terrorism may draw a (false) sense of comfort from the deceptive certainties of armed police ‘protecting’ the centre of government, but in the end it is political theatre designed to frighten us into acquiescence.

Don’t be fooled into compliance.

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