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Polly Peck
24 November, 2005  
Capital Offences

The senate committee examining the Anti-Terrorism Bill spent its last week with plenty of challenging witnesses. The committee members themselves did not pass up the opportunity to display some epic grandstanding, point scoring and back-biting. Polly Peck was there with her notebook to record democracy in action

imageThe Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has wrapped-up its in-depth investigation of the government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill (No.2) 2005 and the excitement is unbearable as we wait for its findings.

First up in the hot seat in the last week of hearings was Geoff McDonald, assistant secretary of the security law branch in the AG’s Department. Greens leader Bob Brown wanted to know why freedom of the press couldn’t be written into the bill.

“At the end of the day it is a law, not a press release,” explained McDonald. The answer could not have been more apt as Brown is a chronic press releaser, second only to the entire ALP. On one dreary winter’s day he even alerted the Canberra press gallery to the fact that Parliament House’s flag was covered by fog.

Ibrahim Bahige of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law confirmed for Labor’s Joe Ludwig that the proposed 12 months control orders could operate rather like rolling apprehended violence orders.

The only real limit on control orders would be the 10-year sunset clause, which Little Johnnie Howard reluctantly agreed to in exchange for the services of the Labor premiers.

So when you read that the limit for a control order is 12 months there is still the possibility for a much more generous 10 years.

Still, it was the Greens who showed just how valuable a function our committee system plays. Senator Kerry Nettle reckoned she had some friends “in a hip-hop band called The Herd. One of the songs that they perform is called Burn Down the Parliament.” Would that be seditious?

Be realistic, replied Ben Saul of UNSW’s law school. Although he did concede that theoretically Fabbo Phil Ruddock could well stop a few jams in the name of national security.

Then there was Robert Toner SC, from Amnesty (and the Sydney Grill) who thought we would all be better off with “A-grade policing using the existing powers, not Z-grade laws”.

Barrister turned Liberal Senator George (“Soapy Ballard”) Brandis was on hand to point out that Amnesty was a bit “naive” when it came to assessing threats from radical Islam.

In October 1988 Amnesty had criticised Indonesia for its treatment of Abu Bakar Bashir and Mukhlas “on the basis that they are prisoners of conscience”, Soapy reminded the committee room.

No need to debate ancient history, said Toner – but Brandis wasn’t having a bar of it, pointing out that Islamic terrorism was what this was all about. And why would he back off when such an easy whack could be had at the Amnesty fellow.

Bob Brown wanted to know that since Philip Ruddock sloped about the place sporting an Amnesty badge, and in view of Soapy’s revelation about the organisation’s support for Abu Bakar Bashir, could the attorney himself be charged with sedition?

“We have no comment. Does that surprise you, senator?” replied Toner.

Things got even more confusing at Thursday’s session (Nov. 17). Ameer Ali, from the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, thought that Peter Costello might be committing sedition when the Treasurer said: “The real enemy’s the Labor Party and we should attack them.”

Dr Mohammed Waleed Kadous, co-convenor of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network, said his members were quite keen on the new sedition laws since they might be able to be used against our two favourite radio shockers – Dunny Jones and Brillo Pad Laws.

“Good luck to the attorney general if he is brave enough to do that,” was Kadous’ contribution.

The committee members by this point were reeling with challenging points of view.

Staying on sedition, Brandis wanted to demonstrate the sheer folly of the good faith provision in the bill, using a puzzling example from his home state:

“I might loathe the Beattie government in Queensland, which is a disgusting government, and want to chuck it out.”

There! An utterly seditious statement without a hint of good faith, yet seemingly within legitimate political debate.

Another witness, John Lawler Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, had the temerity to admit, “I do not necessarily follow what is in The Daily Telegraph”.

“We are on common ground,” volunteered Senator Brown.

“No disrespect to The Daily Telegraph, but I am busy like a lot of other people,” said Lawler.

imageFortunately a responsible media consumer was on hand, Liberal Senator Bretty-Boy Mason: “Don’t pull your punches, Deputy Commissioner!”

Commonwealth Ombudsman John McMillan took the opportunity to remind the committee his office had expanded its role across all Australian territories, “from Norfolk Island to Christmas Island”.

“A Hydra!” declared Mason, while his chum Soapy Ballard added: “Sounds a bit like empire building.”

Things were really gathering momentum just as legal bigwig Bret Walker took the stand and advised the committee to keep the work of Sir Samuel Griffith firmly in mind:

“It may be that, 100 years from now, the present draftsmen may be as famous, and justly so, as Sir Samuel, but I do not think so. It is certainly not true at the moment.”

Then it was the turn of Jon Stanhope, who had so helpfully leaked version one of the bill.

Brandis must have disapproved of the ACT Chief Minister, so he bowled him a tough one first up: “Let us hear you have a go at Mr Beattie, for a start.”

After lengthy bout of bickering among the committee members, chairwoman Senator Marise Payne (Lib) explained to Stanhope, “we occasionally make our points somewhat differently”.

Soapy, it seemed, was trying to make the point that out of the entire troop of political leaders in all the country, Stanhope was the only one with significant concerns about Fabbo’s bill.

“You may wear it as a badge of pride,” said Brown.

“I could respond, chair, to that and point out the nonsense of the senator’s [Soapy’s] position. I could, but I will not waste everybody’s time,” the chief minister added.

On its last day of hearings, Friday (Nov 18), the committee members sauntered in at 1.33pm with good lunches under their belts and McDonald, from AG’s, was back in the chair.

McDonald: You have seen too many different drafts.

Brandis: I know. I dream about this bill.

Thankfully, there was room for substantive time wasting before the day was out. Soapy Ballard had McDonald under the griller, pointing out that utilising the Family Court for control orders seemed odd. After all, former chief justice Nicholson had criticised the terror bill, and Fabbo had retorted: “What would the Family Court know about terrorism?”

Trish Crossin, ALP NT, said she had the exact transcript of Fabbo’s remarks in front of her and provided them to Soapy: “So welcome to the Labor Party if you want to come and join us.”

“I do not want to join the Labor Party – it is full of ratbags,” replied Ballard. Anyway, said McDonald, Fabulous Phil was quoted out of context.

Nettle needled away with a trick question: what if staff at AG’s ring up and say, ‘I’m fine, but I won’t be in for a few days and I can’t tell you what’s happened’.

“They do it all the time,” replied McDonald.

But we should finish with sedition, given the amount of attention it received.

McDonald said: “The real worry is that if you start picking out one class of society – an elite class like journalists, [then the exemptions could just get too wide].”

Ballard was enraged: “Mr McDonald, you are here as a lawyer and those sorts of comments should not be coming from you.”

We’re not sure whether he objected to the idea that journalists are among the elites or to the implied criticism of the government’s marvellous bill.

“No, I should not say that,” grovelled the man from Fabbo’s department.

The final report should be a corker.