IN the past two months Australia has been warned three times that it is a high priority target for an al-Qa'ida terrorist attack. Yet the reaction to a proposed modest, indeed long overdue, increase in counter-terrorist powers by the Howard Government has been a kind of childish, sniggering cynicism in much of the commentariat, as though the Government were making the terrorist threat for political purposes. The gold standard in this juvenile and irresponsible provincialism has been set, as usual, by the ABC's Lateline program.
The recent threats of an al-Qa'ida attack on Australia only echo longer-standing threats from the most senior al-Qa'ida figures up to and including Osama bin Laden. And it's not as if words have not been matched by actions. Already al-Qa'ida and its affiliates have murdered more than 100 Australians in Bali, New York, London, Istanbul and elsewhere.
Each year for the past four years at least one big terrorist attack has occurred, or been discovered and thwarted, against Australian interests overseas or on the Australian mainland. Jack Roche planned attacks, Frenchman Willie Brigitte was at the centre of emerging terrorist plans. The Indonesian-based al-Qa'ida affiliate Jemaah Islamiah had an organisation here.
Extrapolating from public comments by the former director-general of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, it is reasonable to infer that 50 or more people in Australia received training in terrorist camps. The number of extremists to express at least in-principle support for bin Laden, JI or other terrorists is, police believe, much more.
The threat of nuclear terrorism, which could make the New York or London attacks look puny, is real. Every senior US or international former official with relevant experience reaches the same conclusion: a nuclear strike on a Western city is more likely than not in the next few years. Only a purblind fool would trivialise the threat.
Each of the new security measures the Howard Government announced last week is modest, practical and targeted at specific needs. Hopefully the State Premiers, and the Federal Opposition, will get behind them quickly. It is to be hoped the retirement of Bob Carr, who provided leadership on these issues to the Premiers (closely followed by Peter Beattie) does not lead to premiers to seek cheap applause from the usual suspects by trying to water down already moderate measures. When the big attack does come on Australia, no politician who has hampered effective action will be able to live with himself, much less live with the voters.
The security package involves very modest measures. They are certainly not aimed at any religious group. The overwhelming majority of Australian Muslims are perfectly law-abiding citizens. No one of any background who does not support terrorist groups could possibly have anything to fear from these measures.
The proposed 12-month control orders, possibly involving tracking devices, would be available only on the authority of a court, and directed at someone the authorities believe could be a terrorist risk.
As of today, ASIO has 960 staff. It is still a very small organisation. Talk of putting people under 24-hour surveillance is cheap but the reality is that such efforts are exceptionally resource-intensive. Even with recent staff and budget increases, ASIO is stretched very thin. These control orders, which will be applied sparingly, could in some circumstances be critically useful. And the very worst injustice they could occasion is that someone whose movements are innocent could have those movements monitored for a while. In all these matters, there is a balance to be struck and this is a perfectly reasonable balance.
Similarly, preventive detention could be important in preventing acts of terrorism or preventing the destruction of evidence after an act of terrorism occurs. This power will be used within a liberal, democratic society. The Howard Government will ask the states to give themselves the power to detain suspects for up to 14 days. There are countless scenarios in which this power could be vital. The chances of abuse are almost nil. 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.
The Government has been measured and moderate in its reforms to citizenship, extending the qualifying period from two to three years. This is still well below numerous comparable countries. But it allows another year for any adverse information to come to official notice. The Government will also institute more thorough security and character checks on people seeking citizenship. Again, this is a sensible compromise between encouraging people to commit to citizenship and keeping out real trouble.
The Government will also legislate to make it more explicitly an offence to urge others to commit acts of terrorism. This is in line with
community standards and common sense. No one who does not support terrorism could possibly be worried by it. It offers a powerful legal sanction against people promoting murder.
Naturally a certain species of left-wing activist will immediately want to recite words that could be construed in these terms in order to embarrass the Government, to try to show the law is unworkable. Of course, to behave this way requires a sheer unrelenting idiocy.
Hey presto, enter the ABC.
Last year, Tony Jones conducted a contemptible interview with London-based John Pilger, a far-Left ranter who seems to hate most things good about modern Western societies such as the US, Britain and Australia.
Jones cooed and billed over Pilger, who explained that it was perfectly justified for Iraqis to kill Australian soldiers. The interview became notorious. Pilger, of course, should not be prosecuted. But the ABC should have some minimal standards of decency.
The ABC's political culture has a pervasive Left-liberal bias. Sometimes the bias is unconscious, the baby-boomer staff in thrall to the tired pseudo-radicalism they acquired as undergraduates decades ago. The central contention of this radicalism is that Western societies are corrupt and oppressive and Western power is to be opposed at every turn.
So this week Jones respectfully interviewed Pilger again. Pilger was breathlessly asked whether he was brave enough to go to jail over his call for Australians to be killed. Jones once more gave Pilger the softest of rides as Pilger claimed Australia would become a police state and he lionised himself as a brave dissident while Australia was a terrorist nation of conformism and oppression.
There is indeed a lot of conformism in Australia, chiefly at the ABC. The Howard Government's inability to reform its toxic culture must be judged a significant failure, its continued funding of the ABC at lavish levels a complete mystery.
The war on terror requires self-belief in our society. The Government's proposed changes to security laws are predicated on that self-belief, which is almost universally shared by the Australian people, if not the commentariat.
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