Gillard urged to ease 'Orwellian' spy laws

By Greg Ansley

Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo / Getty Images
Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo / Getty Images

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is coming under renewed pressure to ease the wave of draconian powers handed to Australia's domestic spy agency since the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The more than 50 laws passed as Australia grew more fearful after the terror bombings in Bali, and of its embassy in Jakarta and other international targets, are tougher even than those imposed in the US and Britain.

They gave the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation extraordinary powers of investigation, questioning and detention without charge, denying basic civil rights and allowing the rounding up of family, friends or associates of suspects and imposing their absolute silence after release.

Now two new reports, by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and the Council of Australian Governments, have called for the repeal or softening of Asio's powers.

They join similar and earlier recommendations from the federal security legislation review committee, the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, and the Law Reform Commission.

The laws have also been criticised by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

But there appears little prospect of any early relaxation of anti-terror laws. Further powers are being considered by the Government, which faces likely defeat at the September 14 election and will not be keen to open itself to allegations it is going soft on terrorism.

The Opposition, which introduced many of the laws during the 11-year term of former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, remains a hard-line supporter of Asio's existing powers.

The latest reports come in the wake of the Boston bombing and continued warnings of the risk facing Australia.

Asio's most recent annual report said the threat of terrorism remained "real and persistent", including home-grown terrorism. Director-General David Irvine recently warned of the potential danger from hundreds of Australians fighting in Syria, some of whom could return as radicals.

But the new reports described parts of the anti-terror legislation as "Orwellian", and recommended the abolition of Asio's right to detain and question suspects for up to seven days without charge.

The power of the Attorney-General to determine if a warrant should be issued to question suspects should be removed, with a greater role in issuing warrants handed to the courts.

The National Security Legislation Monitor's report said the seven-day detention powers were a drastic interference with personal liberty and freedom and had not been used since their introduction a decade ago.

The report also called for changes to Asio control orders, issued if it would "substantially help prevent a terrorist attack", or on people who had trained with a listed terrorist organisation.

They can be imposed for three months on 16 to 18-year-olds, and for a year on adults.

The orders can ban people from visiting certain areas or leaving the country, communicating with banned associates, undertaking activities including work, "owning or using certain things", or accessing technology including the internet.

They could also be required to wear a tracking device and to remain in premises determined by Asio between set times of day.

The report recommends allowing people on control orders access to mobile phones, to end Asio's powers to force them to relocate, and to limit curfews to 10 hours a day. Security-cleared lawyers should be provided to help challenge the orders.

The recommendations have been welcomed by human rights advocates, who say the powers have rarely or never been used and do little to protect against terrorism.

- NZ Herald

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