Still time to defeat ASIO Bill
by Peter Mac On August 19 the Australian Senate will again debate the introduction of new legislation aimed at increasing the powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). This Bill has been widely criticised as an attack on the civil rights of ordinary Australian citizens. Under the Bill as currently proposed, those deemed to be terrorist suspects, and even those who are not suspected but whom ASIO simply wishes to question, could be held incommunicado for up to seven days, with no right to legal representation or to contact with family or friends. Those so detained could be charged with an offence punishable by five years imprisonment if they resist interrogation. Greens senator Bob Brown last month declared "The legislation is anathema to democracy ... Lawyers, journalists, politicians, friends and families who have done nothing wrong, whom the authorities do not even suspect of any wrong doing, can be detained just because ASIO believes they might help them with their investigations. The Bill turns centuries of legal principle on its head." And of course there's that other legislation, which has been described as the "Terror" Bill, and is ostensibly intended to deal with terrorist offences (the Security Legislation Amendment [Terrorism] Bill). With the help of the ALP, this Bill has now passed into law. Under this law, organisations may be banned by the government if the United Nations includes them on a list of proscribed organisations, or if an Australian court determines that an Australian citizen is directing an organisation which the court also determines is involved in terrorist activities.. The Government had made some amendments to it with a view to more clearly defining terrorism and to exempting humanitarian organisations from charges of treason. The ALP also managed to gain agreement that the banning of organisations under this law would be subject to the approval of both Houses of Federal Parliament. However, as the Federation of Community Legal Centres has pointed out, the legislation may still be interpreted as removing the right to take industrial action (for example picket lines) and to organise political protests, by defining them as terrorist acts. People may still be defined as terrorists simply because they are deemed to be a threat to the health and safety of the public, regardless of whether they have actually organised or carried out any terrorist act. Not that the issue of proscription by the UN will remove the possibility of civil rights abuse. Despite the history of savage repression of the Kurdish people by the Turkish Government, one of the organisations proscribed by the UN is the Kurdish Workers Party. Although the Party has now changed its name and renounced armed struggle as a means of resistance, the Turkish Government has banned the organisation and is still persecuting its members and the Kurdish people. In another harrowing case, a group of Swedish businessmen was accused of involvement in terrorist activities and their organisation was proscribed by the UN, despite a clear lack of evidence to support the charge. The organisation has now managed to clear its name, but not without incurring heavy financial damage and enormous stress for those concerned and their families. The "terror" legislation does not mention a time frame for review of the legislation, nor is the legislation necessarily meant to apply solely within Australian territory. There is no allowance for leniency if individuals charged under the new legislation can be demonstrated to have simply acted recklessly with regard to terrorist acts. (The ALP even proposed that the legislation should include a new "thought crime" of "demonstrating willingness to assist a terrorist organisation". The Government, however, replied loftily that they were sure that the wording of their legislation as existing would have the same effect, and ALP Senate leader Jim Faulkner meekly withdrew the amendment.) ALP parliamentarians joined with the Government in blocking amendments to the "Terror" Bill proposed by Greens Senators. These amendments would have had the effect of * causing the legislation to expire after five years; * protecting Australians involved in civil conflicts overseas from being charged with treason offences if the Australian military intervenes; and * protecting the family and friends of such citizens from treason charges if they fail to inform the authorities of the involvement of the individual concerned. And finally, "backdoor proscription" legislation which was passed last year (the "Suppression of Financing of Terrorism" law) already allows for the effective banning of organisations by means of the government freezing their assets, regardless of whether they are proscribed by the UN or not. The assets of individuals may also be frozen under this law, which is not subject to due process, natural justice, parliamentary oversight or appeal process. The Greens also intend to move amendments to the "backdoor proscription" legislation, but the success or otherwise of this passing the Senate depends largely on the attitude of the ALP Senators. Judging by their performance to date, the outlook for these amendments is not good. There has been widespread opposition to introduction of the new "Terror" Bills. Many have cited the Menzies government's legislation to ban the Communist Party of Australia, which was rejected by the High court in 1950, and defeated at a referendum in 1951. It may be that an attempt to ban an organisation would also be appellable as violating the Australian constitution. However, it is by no means certain that the outcome would be the same as in the 1950s, and in any case court action to determine this would impose a crippling financial burden on any organisation so accused. The "Terror" Bill is now in place and will have to be defeated on the ground. However, the hopes of all the left, democratic and progressive forces opposing the new ASIO legislation have been somewhat buoyed by their victory last month with the defeat of legislation which would have made it legal for the authorities to spy on e-mail, SMS and voice-mail messages. That Bill was opposed by all the non-government parties, and rather than face defeat in the Senate the Government eventually did a humiliating about-face and voted against its own legislation.