Tony Abbott’s scare tactics over national security

Last week, the prime minister used the arrests of two men in Sydney on terrorism-related charges to trifle again with the presumption of innocence.

“This was an imminent attack in Australia inspired by the ISIL or Da’esh death cult,” he said, well out in front of any court vested with the responsibility for making this assessment. “This is a serious problem and I fear … it will get worse before it gets better.”

The presumption of innocence is not a complex thing. Some would even call it basic. But in the game of politics, it must be a burdensome convention – forced on governments by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, alongside the right to counsel and a fair trial and fair hearing and a handful of other pesky things.

Not useful to politics, perhaps, but simple enough to understand. The attorney-general’s department puts it this way: “The presumption of innocence imposes on the prosecution the burden of proving the charge and guarantees that no guilt can be presumed until the charge has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.”

As it stands, the attorney-general claims the arrests were only possible under new laws that allow police to raid terrorism suspects on the grounds of “reasonable suspicion” rather than “reasonable belief”.

While Tony Abbott was convicting the men, George Brandis was celebrating the fact this conviction was made on ever less certain grounds.

Of course, in large slabs of the community this plays quite well. It was to these people Abbott was talking when he recorded his “pledge” at the weekend for a safe and secure country – particularly in the wake of the Sydney siege.

“It’s clear to me that for too long we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

“There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink. And in the courts there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.”

It is an extraordinary statement. If asylum seekers were not yet sufficiently demonised, now they should be thought of in the same sentence as murderer Man Haron Monis. If people on benefits have not yet been thoroughly stigmatised by this government, now we should worry that they are terrorists. If someone was not born to citizenship, perhaps we have been too quick in not considering them a death cultist.

“We are a free and fair nation. But that doesn’t mean we should let bad people play us for mugs, and all too often they have,” Abbott said. “Well, that’s going to stop.”

This is pure politics, about furnishing security services with “more powers, more resources and stronger laws” and rushing through metadata retention laws that will “make it easier to keep you safe”.

But it is also about fear – about governing a polity made quiet by nervousness, willing to forfeit rights and decent presumptions to a government that would prefer subservience over debate, a government out of its depth and looking madly for purpose.

Abbott finished with a promise, one he might more personally reflect upon. “I give you this assurance: as a country, we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.”

Let’s hope.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2015 as "Scare tactics".

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