The Sydney Cafe siege on December 15, 2014 which saw the deaths of two hostages further heightened fears for national security in Australia as the country seeks to clamp down on home-grown militancy. Saeed Khan/AFP Photo
Is Australia becoming a police state?
MELBOURNE “They’re coming after us,” Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott warned following the spate of terror attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait last month.
Since ISIL made headlines with its lightning advances in Iraq and Syria in June last year, the Australian government has upped its national security rhetoric and passed a number of controversial laws.
The heightened climate of fear has fuelled criticism that the right-wing Abbott government is undermining the nation’s democratic values and eroding civil liberties to fight terror.
In December last year, police stormed a cafe in downtown Sydney where nearly 30 hostages were being held by a lone wolf gunman. The 16-hour siege ended with the deaths of two hostages and the gunman, who had forced his captives to display an Islamic flag in the cafe window during the ordeal.
Two months earlier, Australia launched a massive counterterrorism operation that saw hundreds of armed police raid multiple homes in Sydney and Brisbane. Police would not comment on the number of arrests made.
The country also raised its terrorism threat level to high in September, believing an attack was likely.
Australia is becoming a “polarised and fearful place” due to the government’s scare campaign of the ISIL militant group, Senator Scott Ludlam, deputy leader of the progressive, left-wing Australian Greens, told The National.
Australia’s Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has led the chorus of criticism, accusing the government and opposition Labor Party of colluding to increase government powers under the veil of national security by passing laws “which violate fundamental freedoms”.
This includes a data retention law, passed in March, which grants government security agencies access to two years’ worth of metadata — or citizens’ phone and internet records.
Julian Burnside, a Queen’s Counsel and human rights advocate, said that “the metadata laws are edging Australia one short step closer to being a sort of secret police state”.
In September 2014, soon after the US-led coalition launched its military campaign against ISIL, the Australian parliament passed a counterterror law that gave greater immunity from prosecution to intelligence officers who engage in special operations.
The law also punishes whistle-blowers who disclose intelligence-related information, sparking fears that the media could be targeted if it reported on intelligence operations.
In June, Australia also rushed a website blocking bill and a border force act that punishes medical staff with a two-year jail sentence if they report abuses at detention centres for asylum seekers.
The World Medical Association said that the act was “shocking” from an advanced country like Australia.
The government is now pushing to revise citizenship laws, which could see Australian dual nationals stripped of their citizenship for fighting with terror groups abroad.
An estimated 150 Australians are said to be fighting with ISIL and other militant groups in Iraq and Syria, and they are backed by about 150 Australia-based “facilitators”, according to Mr Abbott.
At least 20 were believed to have returned as of January and there are fears that home-grown militants returning from the Middle East could pose a threat to national security.
However, the bill presented also includes vague terminology that widens its scope to beyond terror activities, such as a clause that could see an Australian lose his nationality for damaging government property.
Senator Ludlam has been a leading opponent of the government’s campaign to increase its power at the expense of civil liberties, and warns that Mr Abbott is leading Australia on a dangerous path.
“There is no question that the Abbott government has repeatedly weakened some of the country’s civil and political rights underpinnings,” he said.
But Mr Abbott insists that the threat posed by groups like ISIL is worth giving up some basic freedoms.
“Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we’re used to, and more inconvenience than we’d like,” Mr Abbott said in September 2014 before introducing counterterror legislation.
The government has allocated an extra AU$1.2 billion (Dh3.3bn) in funding for national security which Mr Burnside said was an “absurd amount of money” to be spending to fight terrorism “when the fact is deaths in Australia from terrorist activity are incredibly rare”.
He noted that domestic violence is a greater killer in Australia but receives little political attention in comparison to terrorism.
While noting the credible threat of ISIL, Mr Ludlam said that its significance has been grossly misrepresented.
“The government has chosen … to elevate the threat of a few dozen domestic religious zealots to a challenge greater than that faced by Australia during the Cold War,” he said.
“[The Abbott government is] seeking to maximise this fear for political advantage,” Mr Ludlam said.
Mr Burnside agreed, saying that Mr Abbott’s fear campaign is geared more towards domestic politics rather than confronting a terror threat.
“Abbott recognises that by creating a climate of fear and then offering protection, he can retain government.”
But the strategy of playing fear politics to increase chances of re-election risks leaving Australians with fewer freedoms than their counterparts in the West, and vulnerable to prosecution for crimes reminiscent of autocratic police states.
Mr Ludlam and Mr Burnside both point to the lack of constitutional protections for human rights in Australia as a weakness in the country’s political system that allows governments to tamper with civil liberties.
“I think we’re the only western democracy that does not have coherent human rights protection,” Mr Burnside said, adding that “our nation is less threatened by terrorism than by laws like these”.
* with additional reporting from Reuters