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Wednesday, 26 March 2003
Page: 13611

Mr GIBBONS (6:30 PM) —I find it outrageous that this government has continued to play politics with this bill, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002 [No. 2], having previously refused to pass it, just because Labor proposed amendments and just because those amendments aimed to strike a more principled and practical balance between the security of the nation and the liberties of the citizen. We need to bear in mind that this legislation has come in the wake of the terrorist outrage against the citizens of the United States on 11 September 2001. Since then, of course, there has been the terrorist outrage of 12 October 2002, in Bali—and Australians were the direct targets of that terrorist attack on civilians.

One would think that a responsible Prime Minister and his government would place the maximum priority on achieving national consensus and harmony on measures needed to detect and prevent terrorism. Instead, we have a Prime Minister addicted to playing wedge politics. He is notorious for his passion for wedge politics, which is the strategy of political manipulation that deliberately aims to drive a wedge into the community so that division can be exploited. A politician like this is not a real leader but a would-be demagogue. He does not seek genuine answers to real problems; his eye is solely on the opportunity to pit one group of citizens against another and to posture as the champion of one against the other. Of course, publicly, he gushes compassion and professes his love for national unity. In December last year, I watched the Prime Minister on the last day of the sittings of the House. I was appalled at the nakedness and crudeness of the wedge politics he pursued. He blindly obstructed Labor's improvements to the ASIO legislation. He preferred to see the whole of the legislation put in the freezer than to sensibly compromise and get the legislation Australia needed—legislation that preserved fundamental liberties while being workable and realistic.

It all came out when the Prime Minister shrieked that Mr Crean and Labor were weak on terror, `just as they were weak on border protection'. He hoped he could convince people that Labor's amendments were `nothing short of security vandalism'. He wanted to hold Labor to blame for the bill being stalled and to scapegoat Labor and the minor parties. In point of fact, he could have had the legislation passed back in early 2002. All he had to do was show some decency and some breadth of outlook, all he had to do was recognise what he still cannot recognise—that Australians believe in their democracy and in their liberties and do not want them ripped away for small-minded party political advantage. All the Prime Minister had to do was show a spirit of goodwill and an ability to listen to others, including Labor and the other parties. But he has never been able to do this. He does not know what consulting is, and he certainly does not understand what consulting in good faith is. Dealing with terrorism is just another political game that he plays against his opposition, and the nation is held to ransom because of it.

The Age journalist Sian Prior recently called the Prime Minister a `master of wedge politics', and I am sure the Prime Minister privately gloats at the thought. In a democratic society, most people would agree that the task of government is to protect the public interest and the national interest. Most people would say that, in times of danger to the nation, there is a special obligation on government to maintain national unity and harmony. This Prime Minister and this government make a mockery of democracy. All they care about is grabbing a dubious party political advantage and dividing and manipulating the community. We have seen this kind of wedge politics again and again with this Prime Minister. It follows him like a shadow. We saw it over the Tampa incident in 2001, and we saw it over the excision of various islands from Australia's migration zone. We see it over and over again with his mean-spirited policies on punitive refugee detention centres. Refugees and border security—they are all grist for his mill.

In 2001, the Prime Minister tried to add national defence to his catalogue of wedge issues. We saw this at the time with his phoney sabre-rattling over Iraq, when he was pushing for war and trying to portray Labor as appeasers of Saddam Hussein. In December last year, when this bill was supposed to be debated, the public would not go for the Prime Minister's war line, and the opinion polls were showing up massive Australian concern at the kind of unilateral US war on Iraq that he was trumpeting in 2001. Suddenly, the Prime Minister became the essence of moderation. Then he added terror and national security to his bulging catalogue of manipulative issues, when he attempted to exploit the ASIO legislation for party political purposes. Now, of course, he has gone all the way with the USA, signing Australia up for George Bush's war on Iraq in defiance of public opinion in Australia and making Australia the only ally, with Britain, to be fighting in the Bush war on Iraq.

By doing this, the Prime Minister, single-handedly, has probably pushed Australia and Australians to the top rank of targets for international terrorists. He has been posturing as the deputy sheriff to the United States in George Bush's verbal war to force the United Nations into legitimising his war on Iraq, and now he has become the third gun in the President's posse. In doing so, he has added to the terrorist risk to Australia. The George Bush war on Iraq is George Bush's war. It is the product of the agenda of the Republican Party's right wing, which is to exploit America's extraordinary power as the world's only superpower in order to reshape the world to suit US interests and to remove what they call rogue states in pre-emptive wars.

This is the war that George Bush had to have and that John Howard has mindlessly signed up for. It is the war that the people of the world reject. It is a war against a Middle Eastern nation, and it is roundly condemned not only across the world but also, especially, among Middle Eastern and Muslim people. Its only effect can be to add new recruits to the ranks of the terrorists. It is an act of sheer folly for Australia to join a war that is so deeply condemned among the people of Australia's two close Muslim neighbours: Malaysia and Indonesia. Only days after the US war on Iraq began, the Australian, British and US governments issued warnings to their citizens about the danger of a terrorist threat in Surabaya in Indonesia. Yet the Prime Minister maintains his fiction that this bill is aimed at making Australia and Australians safe. He does so while he engages Australia in a war that can only end up generating more terrorism.

What a poor contrast this Prime Minister makes with the Leader of the Opposition. The member for Hotham spoke persuasively during the debate on the bill on 12 December. He urged the Prime Minister to put aside party politics and pass the bill. He said the bill gave ASIO the strongest powers it had ever had in its history—unprecedented powers that no other Western democracy had given to any of their intelligence gathering organisations.

Mr Crean also highlighted the safeguards that had to be set up to ensure that such increases in powers are offset with protection for the liberties that are traditionally part of the heritage of Western democracies. There are still three of these safeguards outstanding and the Prime Minister will not allow his party to enshrine them in legislation. These relate, firstly, to the age of young people who are not suspects but who would be able to be detained for questioning. The government demands the power to interview teenagers 14 years and over, whereas Labor says they should be 18 years and over. Secondly, the government demands the power to detain non-suspects for up to seven days, whereas Labor believes that questioning under detention should not exceed 20 hours. Thirdly, the government demands the power to deny lawyers for up to 48 hours to those it wants to detain and insists that these lawyers be security cleared, whereas Labor believes detainees should have immediate access to lawyers and that these should be lawyers of the detainee's choice.

As I stated earlier, a decent bill could have been passed much earlier. This present bill itself could have been passed on 12 December if the Prime Minister and the government had really wanted bipartisan support and national consensus. It grants ASIO the increased powers that Labor believe the new ugly era of international terrorism demands, but it does so with proper safeguards. We know that there are Liberal MPs who support safeguards for civil liberties, because they have voted this way on two joint parliamentary committees. As the Leader of the Opposition indicated in the debate in December, Labor itself had dealt with the bill in its caucus on three occasions and Labor MPs and senators have been united in their support for the bill.

We should not forget that this is the Prime Minister who originally wanted to give himself and his government the power to ban organisations. He is the descendant of the Robert Menzies coalition government that attempted to proscribe one party, the Communist Party, over half a century ago. That was thwarted by the High Court and was later thwarted again by the voters of Australia in a referendum. Interestingly, as the opposition leader noted in September, the present Prime Minister was speaking to representatives of the Chinese Communist Party not long ago and he told them that Australian democracy had been strengthened because Australians had resisted pressure from the Liberal Party in the 1950s to ban the Communist Party. This is the same Prime Minister who demanded the power to ban not just one party but any organisation whatsoever that he regarded as a threat. This was a breathtaking grab for power and it showed that in fact he had learned nothing from the disgraceful Liberal experience of the 1950s.

Labor is proud to have ensured that the Prime Minister was defeated when it amended the terrorism bill. But, again, what the nation has had to endure in 2002, as it endured in the 1950s, is division and confrontation generated by the Liberals' disregard for the rule of law and the fundamentals of democracy in Australia. It is the same species of wedge politics being pursued today by the present Prime Minister as was pursued by the Menzies coalition government in the 1950s. Then it was `reds under the bed' and the Cold War, and the target was Labor; now it is international terrorism and security. But the Prime Minister has been caught out and exposed playing his nasty little game of manipulation.

The comments of the media are interesting indeed—very interesting and surprising considering this first example comes from the Australian newspaper. It reads:

The Prime Minister ought to have pocketed the concessions extracted from Labor and passed the legislation through the House of Representatives ...

It continues:

However, Mr Howard's Government has form on needlessly politicising issues of national security—dare we mention boatchildren overboard?—and its ASIO brinkmanship has played political games with the safety of Australians.

Then there is the editorial observation of the Canberra Times damning the Prime Minister and his government. Its editorial of 17 December reads:

John Howard's dummy spit when faced with Senate insistence on its amendments to the ASIO legislation marks a new low in his willingness to politicise anything, and seriously discredits the Government's case for the urgency and the novelty of the legislation.

... ... ...

The Government, however, has hardly made a public case for destroying long-established rights and it can hardly complain if Labor, like many commentators, suspect that the measures go too far, and with insufficient accountability. The accountability for that, however, rests with John Howard, not a Parliament he could not persuade.

I conclude with those remarks. I notice that my good friend, parliamentary colleague and political adversary the member for Moncrieff is about to follow me. No doubt he will be trying to defend his government's position on this bill quite vigorously. We on this side of the House know that this bill in its present form is indefensible.