Towards Police State Australia in the Post-Liberal Era
At least since 9/11 almost all western countries have been involved in a gradual slide to post-liberal, more authoritarian states. Some are gradually becoming outright police states. Australia is no exception, and is in fact in the vanguard of these developments in many respects.
Australia is the only democracy without a national Bill of Rights. This is also because there is almost no grassroots revolutionary tradition of autonomy in Australia at all. As a settler nation in which the government was responsible for much development, Australians in general are historically used to everything coming from above, from the government. Now this government executive is also becoming ever more authoritarian and powerful vis-à-vis the judiciary, and is actively eroding civil liberties, the moral cornerstone of liberal democracies. We are rapidly moving into a post-liberal and authoritarian police state.
Basic liberal civil liberties and human rights are increasingly under threat: the universal rule of law, the presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, the right to privacy, the right to apply for asylum from persecution. As there is almost no resistance to such authoritarian developments, one may conclude that most Australians are either willingly ignorant of such developments, could not care less or else, like most Germans in 1933, are quite willing to trade in freedoms for the state promise of order and security.
Consider some of the details. In Australia Federal ministers are given extraordinary powers in areas such as immigration and national security. Without a Bill of Rights, the Australian system depends on these same ministers exercising self-restraint in the use of these extraordinary powers and on the quality of the people in the security agencies.
The following classic features of a police state are now in operation in Australia. The Federal Attorney-General can permit ASIO to ‘legally’ operate outside the law by conducting so-called ‘special intelligence operations’. Any journalist disclosing wrongdoing or that power has been used illegitimately in such ASIO operations may be jailed for up to 10 years. ASIO has the power to detain and question innocent people for up to a week. People can be jailed for up to 10 years for entering any area declared by the government to be a no-go zone. The government collects data on the location and activities of every Australian resident.
Since 9/11 the Australian government has enacted 66 anti-terrorism laws, a figure unrivalled by any comparable nation. These laws have transferred enormous power to the executive arm of government. Many of these measures cannot be found in the US because they would be struck down under the Bill of Rights.
According to the government’s own national security monitor, Roger Gyles, these laws are “the sorts of powers one would expect to find in a police state in which people can be detained without trail and journalists jailed for reporting on government activity. […] Australia has laws that contain ‘the potential for oppression’”.
As there is no Bill of Rights as in the US, an authoritarian Australian Trump and Bannon could rapidly change things, using these autocratic powers for their own oppressive purposes.
As Chief Justice Sir Owen Dixon said: “History, and not only ancient history, shows that in countries where democratic institutions have been unconstitutionally superseded, it has been done not seldom by those holding the executive power.”
A proposal by the Attorney-General in 2010 for Australia to adopt a national bill of rights which would still have given the final say to politicians was vehemently rejected by both the government and the opposition because it had the potential to shift some power from the executive to the judiciary. The proposal had been formulated after public hearings across the country and 35,014 written submissions (27,888 for a bill of rights, 4203 against).
The erosion of basic civil rights and the increased power of the executive also pertain at a state level. Last year the Chief Justice of the state of New South Wales himself stated that there were now at least 397 legislative encroachments on three basic common law rights, including the presumption of innocence and the privilege against self-incrimination. 52 of these specifically encroached on the presumption of innocence ranging from reversing or altering the onus of proof [on the prosecution] for an element of an offence to removing the presumption of innocence for an entire offence altogether. Section 685 of the Local Government Act even renders someone guilty of a criminal offence by virtue of mere accusation by a local council.
George Williams, the dean of law at the University of NSW, also concludes:
“It has simply become common to treat a person as being guilty unless they can show otherwise. The consequences are enormous. It means that people can be imprisoned where once they would have been set free. Bail laws have been tightened, and prisons filled to overcrowding, on the basis that accusations should more readily allow a person to be detained before trial. […] we are losing something fundamental and important from our system of justice. A long-standing principle protective of individuals and the truth is giving way to a regime based increasingly upon assumptions and premature judgement.”
The increased authoritarian powers of the national and state executives are also expressed in the increase in police powers and decrease in judicial powers on a state level. In 2015 legislation in the Northern Territory gave police the powers to arrest people for minor offences (such as ‘failing to keep a front yard clean’ or ‘playing a musical instrument as to annoy’) without a warrant. The law even allows the police to arrest someone if they believe that person is about to commit the offence, i.e. essentially punish people on the mere suspicion of committing an offence. The arrested person may not even have the right to apply for bail or contact a lawyer. Of the 731 arrests made under the law in first three months of 2015, 525 were of indigenous people.
In NSW the liberal-conservative government in 2014 even simply axed the state law officer’s, i.e. the Attorney-General’s, Department and brought it under the control of the police minister, thus essentially making the police responsible for the formulation of criminal law policy rather than its mere enforcers.
The police minister then introduced a new bill for ‘serious crime prevention orders’ which further eroded the judicial powers of the criminal justice system (trial by jury) and extended and cemented police powers by allowing the Police Commissioner or the Director of Public Prosecutions to apply to a court for new orders restricting the movements or freedom of association even of people not convicted of, or even charged with, a serious crime for up to five years.
A second bill introduced by the same NSW police minister would allow a senior police officer, rather than a court, to make a ‘public safety order’ banning a person he/she deemed a serious risk from a public place or event for 72 hours.
This authoritarian shift in power to the executive is also advanced by stimulating fear and paranoia in the general population under the guise of Orwellian counter-terrorism policies. For example, in 2016 the Federal ‘Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Counter-Terrorism’ (sic) released counter-terrorism guidelines for businesses and staff operating in what they call PMGs (‘places of mass gathering’).
Recommending staff training in spotting potential terrorists, the guidelines point to suspicious behaviours to look out for. If you have ever engaged in any of the following in a ‘PMG’, you might have to really watch your step next time:
‘continuous scanning of an area, unusual perspiration, heavy breathing, fidgeting, rubbing hands, pacing, clock watching, exaggerated yawning, avoiding security/uniformed officers […] unusual video recording or photography, working in groups, taking notes/drawing diagrams, taking measurements (pacing steps out), avoiding eye contact, […] revisiting the same location, observing but not using a public transport system.’
That such paranoia and social trust destruction from above is having an effect on the general population can also be gauged by the increase in Australia in popular self-surveillance, a notorious characteristic of Communist police states everywhere . The number of calls to the so-called National Security Hotline doubled from 9,274 in 2013 to 19,192 in 2014, while referrals to counter-terrorism police from the National Security Hotline grew by 548 percent between 2014 and 2015, one year after the government raised the terrorism alert level to ‘high’ and more than 800 NSW police officers carried out sweeping pre-dawn raids on 27 homes in Sydney and charged one person with plotting a beheading.
When Hitler took over power in 1933 he also retained most of the existing laws and judicial system. All Australia would need is a right-wing Trump, Bannon, Duterte or Marine le Pen figure to do the same in order for Australia to move from a post-liberal police state with some important remaining safeguards and freedoms to some post-modern form of outright fascism. Any remaining dissidents could then perhaps be shipped to the hell-hole gulags on Nauru or Manus where asylum seekers are, with majority popular support, currently deprived of their human rights and severely abused.
[All information taken from the following articles in the Sydney Morning Herald: George Williams, ‘With no bill of rights, Australia is ill-prepared for a Down Under version of Trump’, SMH 13/2/2017, p. 16; G. Williams, ‘Australia’s problem with innocent until proven guilty’, SMH 16/3/2016, p. 19; P. Coorey, ‘Bill of rights looks dead in the water,’ SMH 17/2/2010; M. Whitbourn, ‘Basic legal rights are at risk: chief justice’, SMH 5/2/2016, p. 19; ‘Paperless arrests ‘unprecedented’’, SMH 13/7/2015, p. 10; M. Whitbourn, ‘Lawyers sound alarm over ‘erosion of powers’’, SMH 15/4/2016, p. 3; H. Aston, ‘ Security advice plants ideas to limit damage’, SMH 14/4/2016, p. 5; R. Olding, ‘Massive increase in calls to national terror hotline’, SMH 20/9/2015, p. 2]