It is bad enough when Malcolm Turnbull, in yet another attempt to outflank Tony Abbott to the right, exploits hysteria about the supposed terrorist threat to introduce a further round of police state laws.
It is even more appalling when we have the supposedly left wing Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrews decrying concerns about democratic rights and civil liberties as a mere “luxury” that important people like him in “positions of leadership” can’t afford. According to Andrews, it is the role of the ALP to grant the police every draconian power they demand.
As he put it on the ABC’s Insiders program, “The luxury that no political leader in Australia has is to say no to law enforcement, ‘No, we won’t give you what you say you need, we won’t give you the technology that you need’ …
“Law enforcement have asked … for additional powers, additional support, additional resources, and it’s the job of effective leaders in this country to give them exactly what is necessary.”
George Orwell’s dystopian vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to be turning into a reality. This latest round of increased police powers comes on top of nine tranches of coercive national security laws passed by the federal government in the past three and a half years. They built on the harsh laws pushed through in the frenzied atmosphere following the 11 September attacks in 2001.
The new powers will allow police, on mere suspicion of an offence, to detain people as young as 10 for up to 14 days before they lay any charges. Previously only NSW police had that unfettered power.
Furthermore, the states have agreed to Turnbull’s request to provide the Commonwealth government with drivers’ licence photos. This will enable the police to set up a comprehensive national face recognition system to identify “people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity”. A system of mass surveillance is being established, and we can expect a further array of CCTV cameras to be rolled out.
This is all being introduced under the guise of preventing terrorism. But it will inevitably be used against anyone the government or the police or big business or the media see as a threat.
Today, Muslims are the target of relentless hysterical attacks. But the targets of the witch-hunt can rapidly shift to supposed “African gangs”, bikies, “out of control” youth, building workers standing up for their rights, Aboriginal activists, environmental protesters, “left wing extremists”, refugees, single mothers or “welfare cheats”.
In previous decades, “reds under the beds” hysteria was used by governments to victimise, frame up, harass and deny the democratic rights of communists, union activists and other progressive people. Hundreds of ASIO and police Special Branch agents were employed full time as spies and agents provocateurs to disrupt left wing organisations.
It is also worth remembering, when we are on the verge of at long last winning marriage equality, that only a generation ago a moral panic about “sexual deviants” was whipped up to give police harsh powers to crack down on anyone engaging in “illicit sexual activity”. Special police squads were set up to spy on, entrap, beat up and generally terrorise gays.
Democratic rights, civil liberties and basic privacy may be a “luxury” for the likes of Daniel Andrews, Malcolm Turnbull and their big business mates. But for the rest of us, it is another matter entirely. The struggle of working class people for a better life and improved living standards has always gone hand in hand with the struggle for greater democratic rights and the abolition of arbitrary police powers. You can’t win one without the other.
The demands of the police and the security forces for more money, more weaponry and tougher powers are never ending. Unless we stand up and call a halt, we are heading down the road of the US – where the cops have an arsenal of heavy weapons including tanks and the licence to shoot to kill – or of the old Stalinist East Germany, where children spied on their parents and every second person was a Stasi informer.