More loyal than the king

July 4, 2003

Australia recently put in place new laws to give one of its spy organisations extraordinary powers to detain and question people. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation can now detain people who are innocent who will then have no right to silence. Effectively the ASIO will become something like the Stasi or the KGB - secret police.

The bill gives ASIO the right to detain and interrogate innocent people in secret for up to seven days. Anyone who refuses to answer questions could end up in jail for five years. Access to a lawyer is limited; those who are allowed must be security cleared before they can represent anyone detained.

The most horrendous part of the bill is that people can be detained even if they are not suspected of any crime. The basis? ASIO has deduced that the person in question has information that it deems essential to investigate terrorism. This means that both major parties, the Liberals (the Nationals who are in coalition with the Libs do not really matter) and Labor, support detention of innocent people not suspected of any crime, without charge or trial.

It is a sad commentary on the whole affair that the Australian populace at large doesn't seem to give a damn. In the run-up to the bill, very little opposition was encountered, to the extent that the attorney-general, Darryl Williams, was emboldened enough to ignore a submission by the country's leading media proprietors which pointed out that it would severely impinge on journalists' ability to report properly. Williams did not even bother to acknowledge the submission.

It is worth noting that not even the US government has passed such repressive laws. Australia has done one better than the country which it appears to be trying, desperately, to emulate. Not that existing laws were not repressive enough - ASIO, which has during its existence not even come up with one discovery that could be judged to have an impact on Australia's national security, has sent its goon squads to break into the homes of many people and never had to justify the break-ins thereafter.

Another things worth noting is that the Labor party once again seems to be repeating all the mistakes which it made in 2001. That year, the government refused a ship carrying a boatload of rescued asylum-seekers entry into Australia. Labor, seeking to capitalise on red-neck support, backed this move and thus revealed that it was neither fish nor fowl - it was prepared to sport any visage provided that the face of the day won the elections.

This time, too, Labor has fought shy of taking a different route. It has meekly given in and proved that it is merely another version of the Liberal party - a few letters less, that's all. It is unlikely that Labor will benefit from this weak-kneed stance. The apparent reason is that Australia is facing one hell of a massive threat from "terrorists". The attack on tourists in Bali, where 88 Australians ere killed, is the justification cited.

But isn't this exactly what the terrorists are trying to achieve? Is any country interested in trying to eradicate the causes which bring about such meaningless acts? Or are we going to leave it to the politicians, who cannot see beyond the next election, whose vision of tomorrow is yesterday, to fight the effects?

About a year back, an Australian man called up ABC Radio and related a remarkable tale. The man is a musician and one day received warning notices from the electricity and water companies because he had apparently not paid his bills. He found this funny because he had direct debit provisions in place to cover all his utility bills.

He decided to visit his bank and investigate. Once there, he was a bit surprised to note that the staff were, apparently, rather reluctant to make eye contact with him. He asked for, and was granted, an appointment with the manager.

Rather sheepishly, the manager showed him a letter received from Australian Federal Police which had instructed the bank to freeze his (this man's) accounts as he was suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. The logic takes the cake - he had been part of a music group called Shining Path in the 1970s. As many are aware, there is a militant group of this name in Peru. A swift addition of two and two resulted in six and hey, presto, his account was frozen.

Are we going to be hearing such tales in the future? How many of the people whose homes were raided in the wake of the Bali attacks are guilty of acts of terror? If they are not guilty, if it was a monumental stuff-up, has the goon squad apologised to them and has the government made restitution?

As long as the Middle East crisis remains a festering wound, there will be fertile grounds for recruiting people who are willing to die for a cause. One group may call it terrorism, to the ones involved it is a fight for justice. Nelson Mandela, recall, was called a terrorist by the US in the 1960s.

And as long as Australia unhesitatingly follows the US and acts as a lapdog, the people who hate the US will also try to take out their frustration on the land Down Under, if only because it is a much easier target. It is not because Australia can in any way influence world affairs - the logic is simple, if you back somebody who's against me, you become my enemy as well. And if you're smaller or easier to attack, then, by George, you'll get it in the groin.

Lapdogs only prosper as long as the target of their adoration is around. When the leader of the pack is deposed, there is a time of reckoning. New Zealand, wisely, took an independent stance about the war in Iraq; of course, it has long been cut off from the US circle of favourites due to its stand on nuclear issues. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has been called a man of steel by George W. Bush; Howard may well find that the steel is actually tin if George goes the way of his father next year. Then all the toadying to the US and being more loyal than the king may come back to bite what is essentially a country with an indefensible coastline.