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Bishop Christopher Saunders, Acting Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, today welcomed recommendations by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee to amend radical new terror legislation proposed by the Government, but warned that the recommendations do not address all of the concerns raised by the community.

In the absence of a grave and immediate terrorist threat to Australia, he urged that the legislation be rejected and rewritten rather than amended.  Bishop Saunders’ statement follows:

The Australian Catholic Social Justice Council has expressed its grave concern regarding the proposed national security legislative package to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee, and has urged the rejection of these measures when they return to the Senate.

We do not believe that the Government has demonstrated the need for such legislation, which has serious potential to infringe Australia’s human rights obligations at international law.  Eminent lawyers and jurists have likened these measures to the apparatus of a police state.  The Government should demonstrate that the existing criminal law is insufficient to deal with an existing threat before introducing such draconian measures.

According to the Attorney General’s Department itself, there is no specific terrorist threat to Australia at present.  There is time for more careful thought and drafting.  There is no need to rush legislation through Parliament.  Such haste in these circumstances can only undermine the community’s confidence in the Government’s intentions.

We welcome the Legal and Constitutional Committee’s recommendations that:  the definition of terrorism in these measures be more precise; that absolute liability offences be removed; and that a broad and unreviewable power to proscribe organizations not be vested in the Executive.  These recommendations would improve the Bills that have been presented, but they do not meet all of our concerns.

Because national security legislation of the kind proposed involves serious limitations on the rights and freedom of people, it should not be brought into force unless and until a serious, grave and immediate threat to national security exists.  If brought into force in such circumstances, it should be for a limited period only, and a sunset clause should be provided.  

Too often in our region permanent national security laws have been used to suppress legitimate civil society activity and dissent, including actions by Church groups.  Australia should provide a positive example by using the rule of law to protect its citizen’s human rights.

The freedom of assembly, association and expression are fundamental to democracy.  Individuals or groups that commit criminal acts should be prosecuted, rather than proscribed.  The amendments suggested by the Legal and Constitutional Committee would still allow the proscription of organizations.  These provisions should be scraped, not amended.

In addition to the Bills before the Legal and Constitutional Committee, the ACSJC also holds grave concerns regarding the Australian Security Intelligence Organization Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002.  The powers that would be conferred if this Bill were enacted have the potential to impact severely on human rights and should not be granted to an organization that is not subject to the highest levels of accountability and public scrutiny.  

At stake are basic rights that Australians take for granted as part of the common law:  the right to have a lawyer; the right to contact family or friends if held in detention; the right not to be imprisoned or detained unless one is reasonably suspected of committing a crime, charged, and a judicial authority has refused bail; and the right to remain silent.  The ASIO Bill allows for the detention and strip-searching of children as young as ten years old.  It allows for indefinite detention without trial, with warrants able to be renewed every 48 hours.  This is an even more drastic measure than detention under Malaysia’s infamous Internal Security Act.

It is important for the whole community to reflect on the limitations to freedom that may from time to time be necessary to safeguard the common good.  This discussion requires time.  Hastily enacted legislation that is not grounded in such discussion risks endangering the very rights and freedoms that it sets out to protect.