Monday 23 October 2017

Aussie fair go is far gone

Geelong Advertiser, Monday 23 July 2007, p. 15.

What has happened to the land of the fair go? It used to be that we judged people on what they did, not on what they might have done, or what their cousins might have done. Now we, and we are all implicated, have turned our wariness of visitors, migrants and strangers into a terrible xenophobia. As a result a young overseas doctor is caught up in hysteria over a doctors’ plot to kill rather than cure. The fact that he left a SIM card from his mobile phone to a relative so that the latter could use up the unexpired credits becomes recklessly aiding a terrorist organization in the minds of the authorities.

The Brisbane magistrate who subsequently released Dr Haneef on bail could find no evidence in the material laid before her to continue to detain him in jail pending a trial, though she imposed strict conditions on his release. But before Dr Haneef could leave the Brisbane watch-house the Minister for Immigration revoked his Australian visa. Now it may be that the Minister for Immigration has information that leads him to question the character of Dr Haneef but if so that should be a matter to be tested in court.

When Haneef’s lawyer put some of the material into the public domain a little earlier than it would otherwise have appeared, the full weight of the government’s ire was directed against him for doing so. Shoot the messenger and ignore the message.

Two other Australians have been released on bail in Melbourne after being held since May on charges of being members of a terrorist organisation and providing support to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. In releasing them, Justice Bernard Bongiorno said, ‘If that principle (the presumption of innocence) is abandoned or modified for political expediency, we risk the legal foundation of our whole criminal justice system’. Yet immediately he did so, the Attorney General began talking about changing the law to make it more difficult if not impossible for magistrates to grant bail in cases where the authorities suspect terrorism.

The current hysterical climate is not a time when good laws are made. We have seen this already with the headlong rush to create the current raft of anti-terrorism legislation. No one doubts that there are threats to the kind of society we wish we had in Australia but they don’t all emanate from the terrorists. Some come from those whose remit is to keep us safe from terrorism.

It is no coincidence that this hysteria is exacerbated by the fact that it is an election year. Neither major party can appear soft on terrorism, but the Coalition in particular has used latent fears of strangers as a weapon before. It is one of the few areas where it believes it can gain in the polls at the expense of Labor. The Tampa case is just the most notorious from the recent past, but if you take a longer look at history it was a conservative  German chancellor of the late nineteenth century, Otto von Bismarck who was the past-master at whipping up a fear that ‘the fatherland is in danger’ when an election looked like going against him.

When Richard Flanagan wrote his novel The Unknown Terrorist about a young Sydney pole dancer who became inadvertently linked with a person accused of terrorism he must have feared that readers might think his plot somewhat far-fetched. Now he looks like he was accurately portraying the kind of experience anyone could face in today’s Australia.

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