New Anti-Terror Laws 'Absolutely Essential,' Says Australian PM

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Australian lawmakers have passed controversial anti-terror legislation, despite opposition from minor left-wing parties and a strong advertising campaign by a lawyers' group.

Prime Minister John Howard said Wednesday the laws were "absolutely essential to fully protect Australia against the threat of terrorism."

The Anti-Terrorism Bill, approved by the House of Representatives last week, passed the Senate late Tuesday, two days before the upper chamber adjourns for the year.

The law allows the detention of suspected terrorists without charge for up to 14 days -- up from the currently permitted 48 hours -- and subsequent restriction of their movement through electronic tagging.

It also expands police stop-and-search powers and the use of surveillance cameras at public places like airports.

One of the most contentious measures makes it illegal to incite another person or group to overthrow the government by force, or to incite someone to help a group or country at war with Australia.

To ensure quick passage, the government cut short debate in the Senate, prompting angry criticism from the Greens and Australian Democrats. With the support of the official opposition Labor Party, Howard's ruling coalition saw the bill pass by 53 votes to seven.

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja of the Democrats said the legislation was arguably the most significant considered by the Senate in a decade, yet "the government showed no willingness to seriously consider the many amendments circulated by [opposition parties]."

She accused Labor of selling out, and called it "a shameful and sad day for democracy."

Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens, said the anti-terror laws were ushering in "a new period of McCarthyism," charging that citizens would be brought before courts for political rather than security reasons.

"Australian citizens' liberties, their freedom of speech and their right not to be detained without charge are to be stripped away without any guarantee that it is going to help defend us from terrorism," he told the Senate.

Attorney General Philip Ruddock later welcomed the vote, telling Australian radio that protecting the life and safety of citizens was the government's "first human rights obligation."

A law enforcement system that waited until an offense had been committed and then dealt with the consequences was inappropriate "in the new environment," he argued.

Australia's Law Council, which represents more than 40,000 lawyers, has spearheaded opposition to the legislation.

The body's president, John North, warned the government that lawyers across Australia would be closely watching to ensure that the "very bad laws" were not being implemented in a way that would harm civil liberties.

Earlier, the council ran advertisements featuring quotes on liberty by Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Menzies, a former Australian prime minister.

The ad carried the message: "The government is using the threat of terrorism to introduce laws that put our most basic civil liberties under threat. The ramifications have the potential to be as terrifying as terrorism itself."

Australia is a close ally of the U.S. and Britain in the campaign against Islamist terrorism, and the country has on several occasions been threatened in messages released by al-Qaeda leaders.

The push to pass the laws came after terrorists bombed London's subway and a bus last July. The Australian government and security agencies believe that, as in Britain, radical members of the local Muslim community may pose a terror threat.

Last month police arrested 17 Muslims in Australia's two largest cities on suspicion of involvement in plans to carry out what officials said was a potentially "catastrophic" terror attack.

It then emerged that three of those arrested had earlier come to attention of police when found in the vicinity of Australia's only nuclear reactor, near Sydney. Documents before court also indicated that some of the accused had been trying to accumulate material for a powerful explosive.

More evidence is expected to emerge when the men's trial begins.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow