(CNSNews.com) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Wednesday he did not want to introduce "unpalatable" new anti-terror regulations, but the threat faced by the country was real and the government had to act.
"I don't like having to introduce these laws, I wish we didn't live in that age," he said in a radio interview, shortly after securing support for the measures from the political leaders of Australia's six states and two territories.
Australia has been a firm ally of the U.S. and Britain in the campaign against terrorism, and al-Qaeda leaders have threatened the country repeatedly in recent years.
Howard happened to be in London when terrorists bombed subways and buses this past summer and he also was visiting the U.S. when terrorists attacked on 9/11. Many Australians believe it's only a matter of time before their country is hit.
Until recently, the generally held view in Australia was that terrorists targeting the country would most likely be foreign Muslim extremists like members of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah network in Southeast Asia.
But Howard said the July 7 bombings in London were "a wake-up call that there could be people who are living in our midst who might be capable of a terrorist act."
At a meeting in Canberra Tuesday, Howard won state premiers' support for expanding police stop-and-search powers, allowing the detention of suspected terrorists without charge for up to 14 days - up from the currently permitted 48 hours - and restricting movement through electronic tagging.
The proposals also include tightening checks on people applying for citizenship, expanding security and the use of surveillance cameras at airports, and prison terms for inciting violence.
"The glorification of terrorist activity can cause as much harm as those who supply the bombs and guns," federal attorney-general Philip Ruddock said this week.
The prime minister went into the meeting with the premiers expecting opposition from some quarters because of civil liberties concerns.
To address them, the proposals include safeguards including court approval for restriction orders, ombudsman oversight of detention orders, and access to lawyers for detainees.
Howard also agreed as a compromise that the regulations would be reviewed after five years, and after 10 years would need to be scrapped, altered or renewed.
In the end he succeeded in obtaining unanimous backing after some of the leaders were won over during a confidential briefing by security agencies.
One who was initially unconvinced, Jon Stanhope of the Australian Capital Territory - the area surrounding and including Canberra - said afterwards they had been given "blunt advice from [security chiefs] that we do indeed face grave circumstances in Australia."
Because of that, "it really isn't possible for any head of government to turn away and to take some other advice, or to make some personal judgment on how serious the situation is," he said. "The situation is serious."
Exactly what the security agencies told the leaders is not known, but one newspaper reported that intelligence agencies believed 700-800 Muslim extremists living in Australia were potential security risks.
Neither Ruddock nor Howard would confirm or deny the figures in the report Wednesday.
But the attorney-general said in television interview "there are people of concern who may be motivated to carry out acts of terrorism," while the prime minister told a press conference: "There are some people in this country who hold the values of our society in contempt. There are some people in this country who have welcomed terrorist attacks in other parts of the world."
Howard earlier denied claims by Islamic organizations that the new laws would specifically target Muslims. He said the aim was to protect the entire Australian community at a time of unprecedented threat.
Legal and human rights organizations also criticized aspects of the new laws, especially the detention without trial provision
"They're certainly draconian [and] we have no reason to believe they are necessary," said Law Council of Australia secretary-general, Peter Webb.
Amid warnings earlier this month that the proposed legal changes could result in a "police state," leading Australian political commentator Greg Sheridan countered that "a free society in the age of terror must have such tools to protect itself. To equate them with a police state is almost obscenely puerile."
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