Federal Government’s Rights-Erasing Law Bonanza

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Morrison government

The 46th Parliament of Australia opened on 2 July to finance minister Mathias Cormann waving about the Tax Relief So Working Australians Keep More of Their Money Bill. One might be forgiven for translating the legislation’s title to “progressively robbing the poor to give to the rich”.

As the Grattan Institute analysis puts it, while the first two stages of low-end tax cuts are sustainable, it’s the third stage of high-end cuts that kick in mid-next decade that are of real concern, as this is where health, education and social security will suffer.

Labor continued on with its post-election version of Liberals 2.0 last week. The supposed opposition had initially wanted to see the third stage left out of the legislation. But, in the end, it waved the bill through unamended.

And with the nation buttered up with a fresh cash injection, the Morrison government thought it was an opportune moment to introduce a whole smorgasbord of new legislation last Thursday that contained Peter Dutton’s favourite: rights eroding laws.

Countering civil liberties

Since 9/11, Australian governments have been passing national security/counterterrorism laws that have incrementally chipped away at citizens’ rights. UNSW Scientia Professor George Williams told Sydney Criminal Lawyers on Monday that 75 such bills have now been passed at the federal level.

And with national security legislation, there’s no need for an opposition, as it simply gets ushered through with bipartisan support. So, it seems most of Dutton’s offerings from last week are guaranteed to become law.

The home affairs minister reintroduced the Police Powers at Airports Bill, which proposes to allow Australian Federal Police officers to require individuals at airports produce ID, leave the airport, not take a flight for up to 24 hours, as well as stop anything to facilitate these orders.

And while these measures permit an officer to give an order under the usual “suspect” criminal activity “on reasonable grounds”, they also allow orders to be given when an officer “considers on reasonable grounds” that safe operation or an undefined “public order” needs safeguarding.

Extending your overseas stay

Dutton also reintroduced the Counter-Terrorism (Temporary Exclusion Orders) Bill. As he explained during its seconding reading speech, it sets up a scheme that allows “Australians of counter-terrorism interest” to be prevented from re-entering the country for up to two years.

The minister can impose a temporary exclusion order on a citizen if they “suspect on reasonable grounds” it would prevent terrorism-related activities, or if ASIO assesses that the individual poses a direct or indirect risk to security for a reason related to “politically motivated violence”.

Section 4 of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 defines politically motivated violence to include threats of unlawful harm intended to achieve a political objective either in Australia or overseas, which encompasses trying to influence the policy or acts of a government.

Spies policing

ASIO was officially transferred to minister Dutton’s home affairs portfolio in May last year. On the following day, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence recommended that the agency retain some of the powers it was granted in 2003, but lose others.

The committee recommended that ASIO keeps its power to question an individual under compulsion in relation to terrorism offences for up to eight hours, however it suggested the spy agency no longer have the power to detain and question someone on the same grounds for up to seven days.

Dutton introduced the Sunsetting of Special Powers Relating to Terrorism Offences Bill last Thursday. It permits the domestic spying agency to hold onto both its sets of policing powers for a further 12 month period, while the government continues to ponder what to do about them.

Denying the seriously ill

And on what must have been a rather busy day for the home affairs minister, Mr Dutton also introduced the Repairing Medical Transfers Bill. This is designed to repeal the medevac law, or, as the minister likes to term it, the “bring them all here” law.

As is well-known, Peter Dutton prefers to keep people who have fled persecution in their homeland in prison camps in foreign countries. And this bill seeks to reverse a new provision that allows very sick refugees to come to Australia for urgent medical attention on the decision of doctors.

Dutton says the bill is necessary to “prevent the transfer of a person with bad character”, while Labor opposes it. The legislation has now been sent to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for review.

Throwing away the key

And just for good measure, minister Dutton also reintroduced the Regional Processing Cohort Bill that was first touted back in 2016. As Peter put it, this bill “is to reinforce the coalition’s long standing policy that people who travel here illegally by boat will never be settled in Australia”.

The refugee rights eroding legislation amends the Migration Act 1958, so as to ensure that no “unauthorised maritime arrivals”, who were at least 18 years of age and were taken to “a regional processing country after 19 July 2013 from making a valid application for an Australian visa”.

“From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia” as a refugee, Dutton told parliament, prior to listing some of his reactionary party’s immigration achievements, one of which he said is removing all children from detention.

However, right now, two year old Tamil asylum seeker, Tharunicaa, is being held in immigration detention at a centre in Broadmeadows, Victoria. The girl, whose teeth are currently rotting, has been held in the facility, along with her three year old sister, for the last 16 months.

The lucky country

Commentators often make the point that when the government enacts draconian laws the concern is not that these measures will be applied at present, but rather they could be used by a more extreme power that takes office some time down the track.

This adage doesn’t really apply to asylum seekers though, as laws pertaining to them are enforced straightaway. Although, there’s a recent example that reveals this statement doesn’t necessarily hold when it comes to laws with implications for citizens either.

The government passed the Assistance and Access Bill last December. Unprecedented elsewhere in the world, the encryption-busting legislation contained far-reaching provisions in relation to computer warrants that were utilised during last month’s AFP press raids.

And as is evidenced in this instance, this is a case of laws being passed ostensibly to counter terrorism being used on citizens, specifically journalists, who really posed no national security threat whatsoever.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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