Civil libertarians have always argued that Australia’s anti-terrorist laws pose a major threat to democratic rights. They provide government with the means to punish those who criticise what it does. There is concern that the introduction of these laws has been accompanied by an increasing militarisation of Australia’s police forces.
It has now been disclosed that officials from the Department of Home Affairs had put pressure on a 2018 Australian National University (ANU) review of the legislation to water down findings that had “serious implications.” This is a smoking gun that points to an attempt to hide the truth from the Australian public.
The final ANU report was finally handed over to the Morrison government in May 2020. The government then decided to sit on it.
Documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper using freedom of information laws, reveals the Department of Home Affairs attempted to remove the most serious criticisms contained in the report. Researchers were emailed in June 2020 to tell them to reconsider findings and revisit the “writing tone.”
Special concern involved the use of the means used to assess the likelihood of someone convicted under the anti-terrorist laws to offend again. The assessment tool for this isa known as VERA-2R. It gives the power to detain persons without being backed with evidence or to impose controls on individuals deemed to pose an unacceptable risk.
Exactly what the likelihood of re-offending or posing an unacceptable risk means has never been clearly defined. This means that someone can be imprisoned for years and subject to control conditions after release, without recourse to legal protection.
A second tool called Radar allows convictions based on belief, who one’s family and friends are.
Both tools have been used many times.
Fear of criticism of these tools lies behind the pressure put on the ANU researchers.
Extraordinary measures like this remove legal protections and violate proper legal process, and their existence and use by government, and its imposition on the courts, is a form of political repression.
This is where the biggest threat lies. Australia’s anti-terrorism laws were always about consolidating power, and at a time when this power is held to question, as a means of striking at those who challenge it. These laws and their tools were first used to scapegoat Australia’s Muslim community and create social division.
As the government marches to the drums of a new war, odds on these laws will be used to target those who stand against war. Will they be accused of conspiracy to aid the enemy? Will they be apprehended without evidence, convicted for their opinion, or because of who their family and friends are?
A precedent to make the threat real has been set. Fair minded people must be warned, and these laws must go.