Terror laws: Mass action needed to defeat Howard’s police state

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Muslims are the initial target of laws which are aimed at all who dissent. Barrister, Urfa Masood, speaks out. Photo by Alison Thorne.

A few days ago I had a conversation with an activist from the Chilean community. At one point he said, “under Pinochet (the former dictator), we had these laws, but then it was a dictatorship.” Then, with only a slight hint of irony, he asked, “how can laws like these be passed in a democracy?” He was referring to the new anti-terror laws, one plank of the most repressive legislation seen since the old penal colonies of the early 19th century. And just this morning, at a stall collecting signatures on a petition opposing the destruction of our civil liberties, a community elder, who told a comrade he had fled the Portuguese dictatorship in 1970, remarked that there, too, very similar laws were the norm. He was talking about the so-called “Work Choices” legislation, aimed at smashing unions and destroying workers’ ability to organise. That’s another plank, and it is every bit as vicious as the English laws that saw workers exiled to Australia for banding together against the boss.

Aimed at us. As has been the case every time my comrades and I have set up stalls in the local mall, people flocked to sign. Working people, people on welfare and even owners of small businesses are very worried about the direction of government in this country. The worries are well-founded.

In summary, the laws attack free speech through sedition clauses in the Crimes Act. They allow the preventative detention of anybody who may have information about a “terrorist act,” even if they are not a suspect. Police can arrest a person if they believe that s/he “might” commit a terrorist act or “might” have information about one. That person can be detained indefinitely through so-called “control orders.” Chillingly, it is an offence to tell someone that you’ve been incarcerated, save for a phone call to say that you’re safe and will not be able to be contacted. Quite obviously, that statement will become code for “I’m in preventative detention.” Even more outrageously, if one’s 16-year-old child makes such a phone call — and people under 18 can be held under these laws —there is a five-year mandatory jail term for revealing to one’s partner or siblings or friends that s/he is in detention. This is the government’s criminalisation of compassion, and shows the sheer brutality of the terror laws.  Innocent people can be jailed for life. That is the mark of a police state. It is an offence to inadvertently fund a terrorist organisation, and the provision is so broad that the Bankers Association complained that CEOs look to be liable if “terrorist” funds pass through a branch.

What is a “terrorist organisation”? Any group so declared by the Governor-General!  A terrorist act is so broadly defined that if a scab is injured by a unionist while trying to break a picket line, it is defined as terrorism. It is an offence to possess a “thing” that is connected, however tenuously, to a terrorist act, even if one is unaware of the act and even if it never actually occurs. And the penalty for most of these offences is a mandatory sentence of 25 years’ jail.

“Lawful” industrial action and protest are ostensibly excluded from the definition of terrorism in the anti-terror laws. No problem — the Work Choices law provides that any industrial action can be declared unlawful by the Minister for Workplace Relations. This can be done retrospectively. And, while it is technically not yet illegal to belong to a union, the law now makes it an offence to actually organise within the workplace. As any number of people have commented, it is not a coincidence that the anti-terror laws have been rammed through at the same time as the industrial relations attack. The target of the “war on terror” is not some desperate victim of imperialism who straps a bomb to themself and blows up civilans in Tel Aviv. It’s not even the convenient bogeyman called Osama bin Laden. Hell, as one of the world’s richest men, he’s not about to destroy the profit system.

No, the target is the organised working class. In the eyes of big business, all of us are terrorists. All of us threaten their “good government.”  The colonial dictatorship, now called the Commonwealth of Australia, has taken advantage of its unexpected majority in the Parliament to mount a constitutional coup, enacting laws never put to the electorate. The tiny group of Anglo tycoons who run the economy — and the parliament — have been waiting for this moment for decades. And, at the stroke of their Governor-General’s pen, they wish to wipe out 150 years of union gains, to crush dissent and, while they’re at it, to effectively abolish social welfare.

Howard’s little helpers. Apart from some words about the independence of the judiciary and some inconvenient prohibitions on jailing citizens without trial, the Federal Constitution provides no real brake on the power of the Executive Government. We, the people, for example, cannot petition the Governor-General to call elections when the Executive does what Howard has done: pass laws aimed at harming the population.

Because the Constitution does not permit detention without trial, Howard needs the state parliaments to enact complementary legislation. Why? To subvert the Constitution. Australia’s colonial history means that the states have an almost unfettered ability to lock people up for any reason. The states are currently governed by Labor Party administrations. Although they didn’t have to, ALP premiers fell over themselves to come on board. So this is a bipartisan assault on our rights.

Opposition leader Kim “Bomber” Beazley is even more rabidly in favour of the “war on terror” than Howard. Beazley proposed that police be given powers to “lock down” whole suburbs, turning communities into temporary prison camps. That was too much for Howard’s back bench MPs and is not part of the current anti-terror package.

Then a bunch of fascists, organised by an actual terrorist — convicted firebomber Jim Saleam — incited a drunken racist mob to attack people who looked like Muslims at Cronulla. Immediately the NSW ALP Premier Maurice Iemma rushed through laws that put Beazley’s words into practice. And so the lock down has entered policing powers in Australia, courtesy of the increasingly ill-named Australian Labor Party.

Break bad laws. No less a pro-government newspaper than The Australian has called the anti-terror laws “a brazen grab for power.” Its particular complaint is the threat to jail journalists, editors and proprietors who report on the activities of the Australian Federal Police. The editorial concludes: “It is the sort of thing that happens in a police state – and it has no place in Australia.” The Oz is right, but don’t expect either the Murdoch press or the ALP to do anything about it.

At the risk of a sedition charge, I would like to state (in good faith, of course) that these laws must be overturned. And since the bosses control the Parliament, we have to take over the streets. A militant mass movement is urgently needed to show this band of corporate thieves and would-be dictators that trampling on our rights is not that easy. For, while opinion polls show that people have been scared into condoning the anti-terror laws — for the moment — they also show that the vast majority oppose the union-busting, employer-friendly industrial relations (IR) laws.  The union movement has had a major turnaround since the May 2005 announcement of Howard’s IR attack. Recent surveys have revealed an increase in union membership across the board. With an estimated membership of around 2.6 million, and another 1.8 million wanting to join, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is still, potentially, an unstoppable force in beating back this mutiny against Australia’s working people.

The key to this is the organising of cross-industry strikes and mass demonstrations that include in their demands complete opposition to the terror laws. Because clearly the government and its controllers are not worried about the possession of explosives. They are concerned to criminalise the possession of a union card and of an independent mind with ideas in opposition to their own. When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. Yes, there needs to be a collosal battle to defend our rights at work. But there is now also a struggle to defend our civil liberties in general. And the ACTU must sign up to lead it.

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