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Australia's New Anti-Terror Campaign Backfires Against Its Own Citizens

Controversial Prime Minister Tony Abbott has passed swift anti-terrorism measures, but critics say they suppress free speech and encourage Islamophobia.

by Liz Fields
Sep 25 2014, 6:07pm

Image via AP/Rick Rycroft

This summer, as Australian domestic politics hit a tumultuous peak amid mass protests on the government's draconian federal budget reforms, a complex conflict in far-flung lands threw a lifeline to the country's leadership.

The Islamic State has posed a real and terrifying threat for thousands since the group began its violent offensive across Syria and Iraq. For Australia's wildly conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, who has stumbled, winked, and nodded from one scandal to another, the crisis abroad has also presented a chance to redeem his drop in popularity at home.

At a key moment when the PM, elected in November 2013, was at risk of becoming mired in dissatisfaction over his unpopular social policies — including regressive stances on health, higher education, and climate change — the government's new anti-terror campaign has tranquilized the public's animosity. But the proposed raft of reforms presented with it has also opened the doors to increased anti-Muslim sentiment and threatens Australians' right to free speech, movement, and fair prosecution.

"Tony Abbott is fully aware that potential threat plus strong leadership equals good poll outcomes," Clive Williams, a former Australian military intelligence officer and counter-terrorism lecturer, told VICE News.

Williams, who has previously stated that Australians are at far higher risk of being hit by a car than being blown up by terrorists, said that he considers the government's recent actions against terrorism as "over the top," particularly in the country's "large military contribution to the US-led coalition."

Australia has never witnessed a large-scale terror attack on home soil, although its citizens have died in attacks abroad, and politicians often recall the tragic 2002 Bali bombings in riling public sensitivity to a potential regional or domestic Islamic extremist threat.

'We are a fearful people with a history of the politics of fear in election campaigns.'

The events of the 2005 Cronulla race riots and dangers of rallying anti-Muslim sentiment remained ingrained in Australia's recent memory, yet Islamophobia is perhaps again being seeded by conservative politicians' hardline stance against terror. An "us" against "them" attitude has worked for them in the past, and it may be working now. Hours after the country's largest ever counter-terror raids was staged in two states last week, polls showed Abbott's popularity rating, which has previously dipped to 30 percent, received a six-point bump to 41 percent.

"Australians are falling for it just as they fell for John Howard on border security," John Warhurst, a politics professor at the Australian National University, told VICE News. "We are a fearful people with a history of the politics of fear in election campaigns."

Australia's foiling of an alleged Islamic State beheading plot raises questions. Read more here.

The exploitation of uncertainty "works in several ways," Warhurst said, from "diverting attention from domestic and social policy issues and the economy… to frightening people and making them security conscious and more conservative in their choices."

Emboldened further by public perception of his strong reaction after two recent incidents involving downed Malaysian airliners that killed dozens of Australians, Abbott has once again set off to demonstrate the potency of his governing capabilities.

This time, he embarked on a swift anti-terrorism campaign that kicked off last week by increasing Australia's domestic terror threat level from "medium" to "high" for the first time since the system was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Abbott's Liberal-National coalition government then moved to deploy 600 Australian troops to counter Islamic State militants in the Middle East, introduced the controversial new laws, and reaffirmed $554 million pledged in August to hoist national security measures, even as crisis talks dragged out over key measures left unresolved in the federal budget from May.

The Labor opposition party's widespread endorsement of Abbott's anti-terror campaign has also galvanized public opinion in his favor. "With Labor supporting Abbott what is the average voter to think?" Warhurst asked.

Yet lawyers, human rights activists, and some politicians have remained skeptical of the ramped-up security measures, and particularly the timing of last week's pre-dawn sting in Sydney's heavily Muslim-populated northwest region.

Aboriginal Australians are still dying in police custody. Read more here.

In the shock raids, more than 800 police and intelligence officers, flanked by national media, barged into dozens of homes in Sydney and Brisbane on Thursday, following intelligence reports of an Islamic State-linked public beheading plot.

At least 15 people were arrested and some were detained under "preventative detention orders" (PDOs), that currently allow authorities to hold suspects for up to two weeks without charge.

A 22-year-old man remains in custody accused of conspiracy to commit a terrorist act, while another man was slapped with firearms possession. Most of the other suspects were later released the same day.

Details of the raids and arrests remain murky. Further reporting on PDOs was almost immediately suppressed by a subsequent New South Wales state Supreme Court ruling. Under Australia's existing anti-terror laws, a breach of the gag order could mean up to five years jail time.

'This parliament is being bullied to pass something in the heat of a national security crisis that we will later regret.'

New national security legislation tabled in parliament this week, now threatens anyone, including journalists and whistleblowers, with 10 years imprisonment for "recklessly" publishing information about national security and intelligence operations.

The laws have already been characterized by critics as "chilling" and "an affront to the basic rule of law." Under the bill's vague and generalist terms, Australia's national intelligence organization, ASIO, could also theoretically monitor the entire internet by issuing a single warrant.

Then last week, Abbott released a statement detailing a host of new counter-terrorism measures. Among the proposals, the government seeks to lower "the threshold for arrest without warrant for terrorism offences," extend the federal police "stop, search and seizure powers," and prevent travel to areas "where terrorist organizations are conducting hostile activities." Where visitors to those regions cannot provide a "legitimate purpose" for travel, the laws would grant ASIO powers to suspend Australians' passports in "appropriate circumstances."

After a public outcry and a series of debates, minor amendments were made to the bill, but the changes have failed to satisfy critics' concerns, especially in relation to the potential to suppress free speech and the media.

Abbott has defended the measures as the only "effective response" for security agencies to "keep pace" with extremists, who pose a "real and growing" threat. The reforms look set to be pushed through the senate this week or early next week with pledged support from the Labor party.

Greens party Senator Scott Ludlam told Australian media on Wednesday that while no one wants to suffer an "attack on their watch," lawmakers should resist being browbeaten into a rushed decision that could ultimately severely impair individual freedoms.

"I think this parliament is being bullied to pass something in the heat of a national security crisis that we will later regret, as we regretted an earlier tranche of legislation that we passed in 2005," Ludlam said.

'You cannot beat extremism by encouraging discrimination against Australian Muslims.'

Earlier in the week, West Australian Labor MP Melissa Parke, criticized her party's support for military escalation in the Middle East, and also urged caution in glossing over the finer details of Abbott's counter-terror campaign.The "beating of the drums of war" Parke, a former UN lawyer, said in parliament, has muffled any "rational discussion" of the issue.

On Tuesday, an incident involving the shooting death of an 18-year-old terror suspect seemed to stoke Abbott's claims that extremism had reached Australia's doorstep. The suspect had been brought to a Melbourne police station for questioning after unfurling an Islamic State flag in a suburban shopping mall, when he allegedly stabbed two officers before being shot.

For the wider Muslim community, the effects of escalating hype and paranoia has presented itself in a spate of attacks, death threats against religious leaders, and the desecration of mosques, which began almost immediately after last week's raids.

"We have seen a spike in hate mail and attacks on our members in street," Dr. Jamal Rifi, a prominent Sydney-based Muslim community leader, told VICE News. A mother was spat on and her infant stroller kicked. Even while I was driving with my wife and daughter, both wear a hijab, someone yelled obscene words while we stopped at a traffic light."

Meanwhile, Abbott has been actively advocating a united front against the Islamic State "death cult" under the catchphrase "Team Australia." But Rifi said it is exactly this type of rhetoric, coupled with a failure to adequately combat the rise of Islamophobia that could fuel extremism among disengaged and alienated youth, rather than curtail it.

"You cannot beat extremism by encouraging discrimination against Australian Muslims," Rifi said, adding that politicized fear mongering and sensationalism only feeds the "ideological extremes" of radicalism and racism.

Abbott has portended that in coming weeks the balance between freedom and security "may have to shift" in reaction to a "darkening" terror threat. "There may be more restrictions on some, so that there can be more protection for others," the PM said in parliament.

Williams said that while the terror threat at home "is real in terms of the large number of disaffected individuals," the potential outcome of the government's broadening anti-terror campaign poses a much starker threat to most Australians.

The inherent "danger is less about potential loss of life than it is about the potential for the Islamic community to become isolated and victimized," added Williams, including the "negative effect such a polarization could have on our multicultural society."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields

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