Olympic shadow over Australian civil liberties
by Peter Mac A lot has been written lately about the sweeping powers granted to military forces under the recently-introduced Federal legislation. The rationale given for introduction of this legislation is the need to protect the public from the activities of international terrorists. However, the Federal Defence Minister John Moore and the Attorney-General Daryl Williams have jointly stated that there is "no threat of terrorism against the Sydney 2000 Games". Less publicity has been given to state laws introduced by the NSW Government. This legislation is particularly disturbing because it curtails the right to freedom of expression, the right to protest and freedom of assembly and movement, all of which have been to date guaranteed by law. It allows for the searching and removal of persons on the frailest of pretexts, authorises these activities to be carried out by police, the military and "authorised persons" operating on behalf of public and private organisations, and involves the large-scale use of military forces against civilians. It would appear that the legislation is not only aimed at protecting the public from terrorism, but also at removing the homeless and the poor from the gaze of international visitors and the media and the suppression of civil protest. There are plenty of people who are not happy at the staging of the Games, in particular the enormous cost, the corruption, the resultant pressure on the poor through rental increases and budget cuts, and Aboriginal people who have waited in vain for the Prime Minister to say "sorry". The legislation entitles security forces to prevent different activities that may normally be carried out legally. It gives them the power to warn, search and remove persons from public places (not just in the Olympics complex). Police may remove a person after the second warning if they consider that that person's presence would obstruct, harass, intimidate or cause fear in another person, even if that other person is not present! State police at least are governed by legislation intended to protect the public from excessive force, corruption or other forms of injustice, and with access to the NSW Ombudsman. No such constraint applies to other private "authorised persons" and "enforcement officers". These shadowy individuals are required to identify themselves only on request, and need only give one warning before removing people. They are legally entitled to use "reasonable force" to search and remove people. They may also prevent the distribution of "advertising" material, stop the use of cameras, recording or broadcasting equipment, ban persons from areas under their control, search people and their possessions, demand names, addresses and proof of identity, photograph alleged offenders, seize property and issue on-the-spot fines of $200. Police and "authorised persons" may remove people from sportsgrounds (including spectator areas) without any prior warning or request to move. The offences which may be used to justify removal include the use of obscene language, the possession of liquor, and such vague offences as failure to comply with a request aimed at securing "good order and management" of locations and causing "annoyance or inconvenience". You can even get lumbered for using roller blades! The police need only provoke the use of indecent language in order to justify removal from a public place. Incidentally, the "public places" are not limited to the Homebush Bay Olympic complex, but include Bondi Beach, Darling Harbour, Sydney Harbour, Centennial Park, Randwick and Bankstown, and the Nepean River rowing and canoeing venue. You think that's bad? What about the legislation for use of the Army? Or other "special" Australian security forces? Or, for that matter, armed security forces from other countries that are now operating in Australia, ostensibly to protect their citizens involved with the Olympics? The Australian Army will be involved in operations which correspond to counter-terrorism, including vehicle searches, bomb disposal and naval explosive clearance. However, they will also have more vaguely-defined responsibilities, such as ceremonial activities and "managing... logistics, communications and transport". The use of "military aid to the civil power" is clouded with legal ambiguity as to the rights of citizens in such circumstances, including the right to protection from the activity of the military. Although military forces have been used for the public benefit, for example in the wake of floods and other natural disasters, they have also been used to oppose industrial action, such as in the 1989 airline's dispute, and the 1949 miners' strike. The military were placed on full alert to suppress possible civil protests after the illegal dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975, and were also called out after the 1978 Hilton bombing, which many suspect of having been deliberately staged by ASIO. Other security forces are known to be currently operating in Australia, including armed personnel from the US and Israeli security forces. FBI officers and military liaison officers are here. ASIO officers are said to have questioned members of Sydney's Arab and Islamic community regarding Palestinian suggestions of an Arab boycott of the Games. Nevertheless, international events have repeatedly demonstrated that the US reserves the right to intervene unilaterally, if necessary, in other nations, as it did in the lead-up to the Whitlam sacking of 1975. And perhaps the biggest question of all: what happens to the security legislation after the Olympics? Will it be repealed? Even if it is, will it serve for the rapid introduction of similar legislation in the future? One commentator has observed: "... the security operation is designed to silence those planning to protest during the games and generally intimidate youth and ordinary people. "Secondly, it will set an expanded legal precedent and provide extensive practice for the use of `military aid to the civil power' in the event of rising social tensions of the type revealed by the planned Olympic protests."
* * *Special acknowledgements to Michael Head, lecturer in Law, University of Western Sydney.