Fraying the fabric

FREMANTLE’S MELISSA PARKE was the only federal Labor MP to express disquiet with the Abbott government’s new counter-terrorism legislation, which otherwise enjoyed Labor’s support. This is a heavily edited version of the speech she delivered in Parliament.

TONY Abbott made a speech in 2012 in which he referred to the Coalition as the “freedom party”. As prime minister he now believes “the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift” and that “there may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protection for others”.

I question the premise of the government’s approach to this area of policy, which is essentially that freedoms must be constrained in response to terrorism; and that the introduction of greater obscurity and impunity in the exercise of government agency powers that contravene individual freedoms will both produce, and are justified in the name of, greater security.

If we want to live free from terrorism and orchestrated violence—so the argument goes—we have to accept shifting the balance between freedom and constraint away from the observance of basic rights and towards greater surveillance, more interference, deeper silence.

The truth is the remarkable peace, harmony, and security we enjoy in Australia is in fact produced and sustained by our collective observance of freedoms and human rights, rather than existing in spite of such values and conditions. It is wrong to say we have been complacent about security on two counts. First, because we have strong, well-resourced, and competent security agencies, and second because our commitment to a way of life that puts faith in freedom, respect and tolerance, that puts faith in democracy and the rule of law, is itself productive of peace and shared security.

These are the reasons we must be so careful when we legislate to constrain those freedoms—because contrary to the reductive argument that says we’re making a straight trade of less freedom for more safety, the reality is likely to be, and indeed has proved to be many times in the past, that constraining our fundamental liberties achieves nothing more than making us less free and in fact does ourselves harm through licensing the abuse of powers.

In the wake of the past few weeks’ delivery by government, assisted by many media outlets, of “existential threat” and “panic/don’t panic” messages, many people in the Australian community feel understandably confused and anxious. Members of Australia’s Muslim communities may fear that the PM’s “restrictions on some” message applies to them. If that is the case, then surely it is an approach that can only foster fear, mistrust and division, the very opposite of what is needed in terms of investing in community harmony, safety and human security.

It’s hard not to have the sense there is too much fierce agreement as a result of people believing we currently face some completely new and unprecedented terror threat in Isis.

This Bill entrenches and amplifies the lack of protection for whistleblowers and penalises with up to 10 years’ gaol the legitimate actions of journalists in holding government to account.

There have been numerous examples of governments, defence, intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Australia and elsewhere abusing their powers that have only come to light via Wikileaks; Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers regarding for instance the improper mass surveillance of civilians, the misuse of our aid program, and spying on foreign governments, including for the commercial benefit of corporations.

I would contrast the curious yet telling gulf between the nicely timed, neatly packaged and government facilitated media access to the recent AFP anti-terror operations and the utter silence, stonewalling and denial of access to operations that involve asylum seekers.

There is a lot of talk about the danger of complacency when it comes to security threats, including terrorism. I don’t see evidence of that complacency, and none has been put forward. If there is any complacency, it is in relation to the very real dangers that lie in failing to recognise, value and speak up for our fundamental rights, values and freedoms. .

We’d do well to reflect upon this now as we consider changes in this Bill and in others that seek to re-set our laws and values in ways that may not only be ill-designed to protect us from the dangers and horrors we seem inclined to over-state, but might in fact wear and fray the fabric of our freedom, trust, and faith in government.

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