The early numbers are in on the Government's proposed toughening of Australia's anti-terror laws and they make for interesting reading. According to Newspoll, 77% of respondents were in favour of the new law that would require individuals who travel to pre-designated conflict zones to prove they had not been in contact with any terrorist groups.
This result is significant.
It is significant because, when it comes to matters of national security, public opinion really does matter. While on other issues it may be within a government's remit to move ahead of prevailing attitudes, when it comes to our collective safety there should be no such latitude.
This is because measures that are enacted with the aim of preserving the safety of citizens will inevitably impact on our liberty. And though the most basic function of any government is to protect its citizens, history is littered with examples of governments that have used this justification to concentrate their own power and quell opposition.
While a robust and mature democracy like Australia is unlikely to go down such a path, the centrality of individual rights and liberty in our system of governance demands strong public support for any measures that impinges on our freedoms.
So what should we make of the Newspoll results recently published in The Australian?
Given that Newspoll has addressed the most controversial of the proposed enhancements to our current anti-terror laws, it is reasonable to assume that there would be the equivalent or greater support for the other measures, which in the main seek to maintain existing powers of the AFP and ASIO* beyond their current sunset clauses.
Furthermore, the decisive outcome on the specific question of reversing the onus of proof for people traveling to designated conflict zones indicates that Australians are largely comfortable with the proposed recalibration of the liberty/security scale toward ensuring our collective safety.
It should be noted that Newspoll's question does not actually mention anything about reversing the burden of proof, which is the key element of the provision in question. No doubt more cautious wording would have dampened some of the apparent enthusiasm for the proposal.
It is also important to acknowledge that public opinion must not be the sole determinant of the utility of enhanced anti-terror measures. Any broad-based consensus should be combined with targeted consultation, especially with those communities likely to be disproportionately affected by the changes.
We are seeing this process play out in the form of engagement by key actors, including Prime Minister Abbott and ASIO Director-General David Irvine, with representatives of the Islamic community. While these meetings do not appear to have resulted in the consensus that I am sure the Government would have liked, they nonetheless serve an important purpose in providing a platform for alternative views to be expressed by those who feel that they have the most to lose.
Our parliament should also heed expert opinion. This will become especially pertinent when the draft legislation is tabled later this year. Indeed, it will be crucial to determine whether the laws will actually have the desired effect of combating the threat of radicalised fighters returning to Australia to carry out terrorist attacks. This is easier said than done. The concept of reversing the burden of proof will require careful thought and deft drafting in order to achieve the desired effect while not entangling innocent travelers.
If the Government can get the drafting right, it has a sound basis to move forward with this measure along with the other proposed enhancements to Australia's counter-terrorism framework.
Photo by Flickr user Jeff Nelson.
Ed. note: ASIO is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute.