28 June 2003

Told to heel, this dog's still got bite
'It was a dark and stormy night. ASIO was knocking at the door ..." Apologies to Snoopy (and the late Charles Schultz), but I've been looking at a blank screen for well over an hour and that's the best I can come up with. Daryl Williams, QC, would understand. Williams is the federal Attorney-General, the country's first law officer. For 15 months he's been trying to write, not the great novel but a regime of bleak interrogation laws under which people can be arrested - the Howard Government prefers "detained" - for no reason other than what they might know, even if they don't know that they know. No such legislation has previously applied in Australia. Ever. Well, it does now.

Williams has authored, finally, a piece of legislation the Senate could accept. It took two inquiries, huge controversy, two rewrites, a year of wheeling and dealing with Labor's Senate leader, John Faulkner, and a great deal of political bullying and parliamentary brinkmanship. Now it's here, for three years, minimum. What it is is the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002. All 40 pages of it, plus protocols. And, in the end, the Senate did not approve it - the Labor Opposition did.

People who can't count pretend that four independents (Tasmania's Brian Harradine and Shayne Murphy, South Australia's Meg Lees and Queensland's Len Harris) hold the Senate balance of power. They don't. They only share it - with two Greens, seven Democrats and 28 Labor senators. The Government, with 35 senators, needs four of the others - any four, whoever - to join it for a simple Senate majority on any given piece of legislation. Mix and match, if necessary. And if Labor backs the Government, whatever the issue, there isn't a thing the others, the 13 minor party/independent also-rans, can do to stop them. Game, set and match.

So while the Democrats came to the Government party in 1999 to get the GST into law, and John Howard's accident-prone Communications Minister, Richard Alston, has again failed spectacularly, this time to seduce the four independents to end Paul Keating's 1986 cross-media rules, it is Labor who has bargained with the Coalition to allow Williams to have his new ASIO powers for three years, minimum.

They are much-watered-down powers to the ones Williams and his Prime Minister first wanted 15 months ago. But they're still powers the others refused to endorse. Thus when the final vote was taken two nights ago, the two big battalions lined up to crush the tiny rest, 51 votes to 12, with only Tasmania's Brian Harradine from among the "others" voting with the major parties.


ASIO does not have to knock on your door, either. Nor does ASIO do the arresting. They simply accompany the wallopers. Section 34JA says any police officer who "believes" a person named in an ASIO warrant is on "any premises ... may enter the premises, using such force as is necessary and reasonable, at any time of the day or night for the purpose of searching the premises for the person or taking the person into custody".

And exactly how much force can police use? Well, section 34J says any person subject to a warrant "must be treated with humanity and with respect for human dignity, and must not be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, by anyone exercising authority under the warrant or implementing or enforcing the direction". Yet police can shoot you if they think it "necessary and reasonable" and they have all the authority in the world to do so, even if you're guilty of nothing except maybe taking fright and running, or some other panic reaction.

Section 34JB says: "A police officer may use such force as is necessary and reasonable in a) taking a person into custody, b) preventing the escape of a person from such custody, or c) bringing a person before a prescribed authority for questioning, or d) detaining a person in connection with such a warrant." However, police "must not use more force or subject the person [under warrant] to greater indignity than is reasonable and necessary". Nor can police "cause the death of, or do grievous bodily harm to, the person unless the officer believes on reasonable grounds that doing that thing is necessary to protect the life or prevent serious injury to another person, including the officer [my emphasis]".

Reassuring, indeed.

Alan Ramsey looks set to become Oz' answer to Paul Krugman if he keeps this up. The digest for the Act is deeply scary. That Labor would combine with the Coalition to pass it is scarier still. The Amnesty International analysis is somewhat out of date but damning. These are the people who tell us that a charter of rights would be a bad thing because our liberties are safe in the hands of the parliament and do not need further protection. And this is the opposition that claims it has policies to offer the Australian people.

In March 1763 William Pitt addressed the House of Commons:
The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter, but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!

This sort of ancient common law is supposed to replace the horrors of governments having to observe human rights. Bugger that, opposing the bill might cost Labor votes.

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