Is Australia becoming a police state?


Is Australia becoming a police state?

The Sydney Cafe siege on December 15, 2014 which saw the deaths of two hostages further heightened fears for national security in Australia as the country seeks to clamp down on home-grown militancy. Saeed Khan/AFP Photo
 Is Australia becoming a police state?

Since ISIL made headlines with its lightning advances in Iraq and Syria in June last year, the Australian government has upped its national security rhetoric and passed a number of controversial laws.

The heightened climate of fear has fuelled criticism that the right-wing Abbott government is undermining the nation’s democratic values and eroding civil liberties to fight terror.

In December last year, police stormed a cafe in downtown Sydney where nearly 30 hostages were being held by a lone wolf gunman. The 16-hour siege ended with the deaths of two hostages and the gunman, who had forced his captives to display an Islamic flag in the cafe window during the ordeal.

Two months earlier, Australia launched a massive counterterrorism operation that saw hundreds of armed police raid multiple homes in Sydney and Brisbane. Police would not comment on the number of arrests made.

The country also raised its terrorism threat level to high in September, believing an attack was likely.

Australia is becoming a “polarised and fearful place” due to the government’s scare campaign of the ISIL militant group, Senator Scott Ludlam, deputy leader of the progressive, left-wing Australian Greens, told The National.

Australia’s Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs has led the chorus of criticism, accusing the government and opposition Labor Party of colluding to increase government powers under the veil of national security by passing laws “which violate fundamental freedoms”.

This includes a data retention law, passed in March, which grants government security agencies access to two years’ worth of metadata — or citizens’ phone and internet records.

Julian Burnside, a Queen’s Counsel and human rights advocate, said that “the metadata laws are edging Australia one short step closer to being a sort of secret police state”.

In September 2014, soon after the US-led coalition launched its military campaign against ISIL, the Australian parliament passed a counterterror law that gave greater immunity from prosecution to intelligence officers who engage in special operations.

The law also punishes whistle-blowers who disclose intelligence-related information, sparking fears that the media could be targeted if it reported on intelligence operations.

In June, Australia also rushed a website blocking bill and a border force act that punishes medical staff with a two-year jail sentence if they report abuses at detention centres for asylum seekers.

The World Medical Association said that the act was “shocking” from an advanced country like Australia.

The government is now pushing to revise citizenship laws, which could see Australian dual nationals stripped of their citizenship for fighting with terror groups abroad.

An estimated 150 Australians are said to be fighting with ISIL and other militant groups in Iraq and Syria, and they are backed by about 150 Australia-based “facilitators”, according to Mr Abbott.

At least 20 were believed to have returned as of January and there are fears that home-grown militants returning from the Middle East could pose a threat to national security.

However, the bill presented also includes vague terminology that widens its scope to beyond terror activities, such as a clause that could see an Australian lose his nationality for damaging government property.

Senator Ludlam has been a leading opponent of the government’s campaign to increase its power at the expense of civil liberties, and warns that Mr Abbott is leading Australia on a dangerous path.

“There is no question that the Abbott government has repeatedly weakened some of the country’s civil and political rights underpinnings,” he said.

But Mr Abbott insists that the threat posed by groups like ISIL is worth giving up some basic freedoms.

“Regrettably, for some time to come, Australians will have to endure more security than we’re used to, and more inconvenience than we’d like,” Mr Abbott said in September 2014 before introducing counterterror legislation.

The government has allocated an extra AU$1.2 billion (Dh3.3bn) in funding for national security which Mr Burnside said was an “absurd amount of money” to be spending to fight terrorism “when the fact is deaths in Australia from terrorist activity are incredibly rare”.

He noted that domestic violence is a greater killer in Australia but receives little political attention in comparison to terrorism.

While noting the credible threat of ISIL, Mr Ludlam said that its significance has been grossly misrepresented.

“The government has chosen … to elevate the threat of a few dozen domestic religious zealots to a challenge greater than that faced by Australia during the Cold War,” he said.

“[The Abbott government is] seeking to maximise this fear for political advantage,” Mr Ludlam said.

Mr Burnside agreed, saying that Mr Abbott’s fear campaign is geared more towards domestic politics rather than confronting a terror threat.

“Abbott recognises that by creating a climate of fear and then offering protection, he can retain government.”

But the strategy of playing fear politics to increase chances of re-election risks leaving Australians with fewer freedoms than their counterparts in the West, and vulnerable to prosecution for crimes reminiscent of autocratic police states.

Mr Ludlam and Mr Burnside both point to the lack of constitutional protections for human rights in Australia as a weakness in the country’s political system that allows governments to tamper with civil liberties.

“I think we’re the only western democracy that does not have coherent human rights protection,” Mr Burnside said, adding that “our nation is less threatened by terrorism than by laws like these”.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting from Reuters

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The secret history of fascism in Australia


eric campbell - guard
New Guard leader Eric Campbell at a meeting in Sydney 1932
The secret history of fascism in Australia

by Mick Armstrong

New Guard leader Eric Campbell at a meeting in Sydney 1932

 

There is a myth that Australia, with its supposed democratic, egalitarian traditions, has been immune from mass fascist movements. This is far from true.

Fascism as a mass phenomenon is a product of a capitalist system that is in deep social and political crisis. That was the case with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

In 1931-32 there were 130,000 Australians under arms, out of a population of just over 6 million. They trained and drilled with an assortment of fascist or far right paramilitary organisations. These were so-called respectable citizens: solicitors, doctors, dentists, graziers and business owners.

Support for Hitler and Mussolini was widespread in establishment circles.

In 1933, the Melbourne Herald ran a series of articles titled “Why I have become a fascist” by Wilfrid Kent Hughes, a Victorian MP. Kent Hughes came from a well connected Melbourne family. He had been school captain at Melbourne Grammar and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He went on to become deputy premier of Victoria. In the 1950s he was a minister in Menzies’ federal Liberal government.

Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, was glowing in his praise of Nazi Germany. In 1938, when federal attorney general, he visited the country and enthused about the “really spiritual quality in the willingness of Germans to devote themselves to the service and well being of the state”.

Hitler and Mussolini were viewed as heroes by conservatives because they had crushed the socialist movement and smashed the unions. They had ensured that profits kept rolling in. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald declared: “Italy was only saved from Red dominance by the heroic remedy of fascism”.

Another typical example comes from 1937. William Mackay, the NSW police commissioner, established the first Police Boys Clubs. They were modelled on the Nazi labour youth battalions, which he admired because they “subordinate the individual to the welfare of the nation”.

Mackay’s fellow police commissioner in Victoria, Thomas Blamey, headed the main far right paramilitary organisation the League of National Security (also known as the White Army). Blamey went on to become a field marshal and commander of the army in World War Two.

1930s crisis

The crisis of the Depression years led to a political and social polarisation along class lines. More than 30 percent unemployment, wage cuts, widespread evictions and mass poverty led masses of workers to question the whole basis of capitalist society.

In NSW, the radical populist Labor premier Jack Lang won an enormous following. To the left of Lang, the Socialisation Units – which were committed to the immediate introduction of socialism – enrolled tens of thousands. The Communist Party also grew.

Ruling class opinion was hysterical about Lang. Lang was no revolutionary, but he was seen as opening the way for all the disloyal elements in society – the Reds, the unemployed and the Irish Catholics. Irish Catholics were the Muslims of the day – they had betrayed the empire during its hour of need during World War One by revolting against Protestant rule.

The New Guard is the best known of the far right groups. It was formed in February 1931 as a breakaway from the much larger and more powerful Old Guard, which had prominent capitalist backers and operated secretly.

The New Guard, with 36,000 members, was an open fascist organisation that physically attacked union, ALP, unemployed and communist meetings. Its leader, Eric Campbell, visited Italy and Germany and established close relations with the fascists there. It was more middle class in character than the Old Guard. Former prime minister John Howard’s father, Lyall, a petrol station owner, was typical.

Every state had its own fascist or far right organisations. In March 1931, the League of National Security staged a trial run at a coup. Its armed militias seized dozens of towns across rural Victoria.

But the height of far right mobilisation was in NSW. The Melbourne Herald declared: “Today in NSW the deliberate process of smashing is going on under our noses. Sovietism and revolution have found their instrument in Lang”.

In April 1932, the New Guard organised a riot outside Sydney’s Central Police Station as a trial run for a coup. It went badly. But just over a month later, on 13 May, Lang was gone.

The Old guard – which had close connections with the police, the armed forces and the security apparatus, and whose leadership read like a who’s who of the Sydney establishment – mobilised to bring his government down. As well as a secret military wing, it had an open front organisation of 130,000 members called the All Australia League.

Under tremendous pressure from the ruling class, state governor Philip Game sacked Lang in a soft coup. An armed fascist revolt was no longer necessary. Soon afterwards, Scullin’s federal Labor government also fell.

Legacy

Capitalist rule had been stabilised without the need for a full blown fascist regime. But the far right and fascist mobilisations had a profound impact on Australian politics, which was pushed well to the right.

The conservative governments that came to power federally and in NSW shared many of the values of the New and Old Guard. Indeed, at least 20 NSW members of parliament were members of the New Guard. There were others from the Old Guard.

The parliamentary arm of the right achieved a lot of what the paramilitary wing desired: democratic rights sharply undermined, major attacks on free speech, a harsh censorship regime, and a crackdown on the left, the unions and the unemployed.

All this ensured that the burden of the Depression was imposed on the working class and that the profits of the banks and big capital were secured.

For large numbers of workers, Depression-level wages and conditions were maintained for many years after the economy began to pick up.

The fascists and their backers had achieved their main goal.

 

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