Tuesday, October 18, 2005

OPINION: Just Shoot Me?

I’m an Australian. I grew up in the heart of the Prime Minister’s electorate. I attended an Anglican school. I practice law and do some freelance writing. I speak with a broad Australian accent. English is my first language. The only passport I ever held was an Australian one. My favourite item of clothing is my Wallabies jersey.

I also happen to have a Muslim background. I have a Turkish and Arabic name. And after reading the provisions of the draft Anti-Terrorism Bill 2005, I am terrified.

It took over 100 years to develop industrial relations into its current form in Australia. Now, the Commonwealth is spending millions educating us about our Work Choices. Most ALP premiers are up in arms at the loss of State jurisdictions in sensitive areas such as unfair dismissal.

Industrial reform interests me because it is the area in which I practice the most. The rights and freedoms of Australian employers and employees is an important issue. We need to have public debate on workplace reform.

Our civil liberties date back to ancient Greece. It took centuries of civilisation and philosophical effort to develop our liberal democracy. It took hundreds of wars costing millions of lives to protect liberties we all take for granted.

But for some reason, the Prime Minister and most State and Territory leaders are resisting debate on laws which represent perhaps the biggest assault of basic Australian civil liberties since Federation.

To make matters worse, few governments were happy to have the draft laws released to those whose liberties will be most affected – ordinary Australians. Were it not for the brave actions of ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, Australians would have had no hope of having some idea of the extent to which liberties were endangered.

Mr Howard says the laws are based on agreement reached between Commonwealth, State and Territory leaders. He says there is little point having a discussion.

Effectively he is expecting Australians to accept the idea that police should have power to kill anyone they suspect of being a terrorist. The “shoot to kill” power was nowhere mentioned in the PM’s proposals released on 8 September 2005. Nor was there any mention at the Council of Australian Governments meeting on 27 September 2005 of police being allowed to kill terror suspects.

So who will be shot? What sort of persons could be killed as potential terrorists?

Under United States law, there is a list of organisations deemed to be terrorist organisations. Membership of and support for such organisations is an offence. The organisations include the usual suspects such as the Abu Nidal Organisation. They also include the Israeli Kahane Chai movement, certain Northern Ireland militias and the Tamil Tigers.

In Australia, only groups linked to Islam or Muslims are deemed terrorist groups. Already, the president of a national union representing police officers across the country has stated that the proposed laws can only be implemented using ethno-religious and racial profiling.

Now let’s be honest with ourselves. If a terrorist act occurred in Sydney or Melbourne, which ethno-religious group would be the first suspected of involvement? Vietnamese Buddhists? South African Jews? Kiwi back packers?

Would police officers be scouting yoga classes at Byron Bay for terror suspects? Will shock jocks be calling upon the governments to crack down on Steiner Schools? Will Liberal backbenchers be complaining about Hindus not abiding by Australian values? Will there be talk of detaining Callithumpians in special camps for their own protection?

The reality is that people with strange names and/or slightly darker skin colour will be the first suspected. That means men with beards and women with veils. And that means many Muslim Australians will be targeted. But not just them.

Some months back, I employed a clerk to work in my law firm. She has an Anglo-Australian father and a South Indian mother. She considers herself a Catholic and was born in Australia. Yet following the London bombing, she could feel people were watching her more closely on trains and buses.

I have another friend who never met her Muslim father. I met her some 18 months ago when she was working behind a bar serving beer and wine. She has a typical Arabic name.

Within days of the September 11 attacks in New York, FBI agents arrested their first suspect. He had dark brown skin and wore a turban. Some days later, another man sporting a beard and turban was shot dead by a crazed killer seeking revenge. Both men were Sikhs.

Mr Ruddock insists that racial profiling will not be used in the implementation and enforcement of the new laws. But Mr Ruddock has not addressed the compelling argument made by the president of the national police union. State and Federal police will be implementing the laws on the ground.

If a terror suspect decides to run, police officers don’t have time to go before a magistrate or wait for specific orders. They just shoot. Just as they did in London. And when they realise the person they just killed was an Indigenous Australian or a French Jew or a Brazilian backpacker, it will be too late.