Rough injustice

In October last year, a 15-year-old boy, Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, killed an accountant named Curtis Cheng on the steps of police headquarters in Parramatta. The attack was motivated by Islamic terrorism.

In its report on the murder, The Saturday Paper quoted the academic Anne Aly at length. She is an expert in deradicalisation and active in Australia’s efforts to contain terrorism. She is the founding chair of People Against Violent Extremism, a program funded by government, and associate professor at Curtin University’s Department of Social Sciences and Security Studies. At Barack Obama’s summit on combating violent extremism, held in February that year, she was the only Australian civil-society representative invited to speak.

“To date, Australia has focused very much on the punitive. We’ve invested a billion on security, but very little on prevention,” she said in The Saturday Paper’s report.

 “People who are 15 and 16 now are two years ahead of us in their process towards radicalisation while we’re still thinking the only thing we can do is intervene, rather than prevent… Community engagement requires more than just engaging with community leaders, those who are willing to engage with you, but doing the hard yards to seek out people who are unwilling to engage with you.”

She also said: “The tone of political discourse has a huge impact on how government programs are perceived. Any efforts by the government to combat radicalisation are going to be less effective if they are perceived as politics.”

This week, Aly was the victim of politics’ uglier impulses. Intervening in the tight race for Cowan in Western Australia, where she is the Labor candidate, justice minister Michael Keenan sought to imply she was a terrorist sympathiser.

Keenan said Aly offered a “letter of support” to two men convicted on terrorism-related offences. The men were guilty of using fake names on domestic flights. They had no previous convictions. Aly’s “letter of support” was really an opinion expressed to the sentencing judge that they might be candidates for the deradicalisation programs Keenan’s department finances.

“I’m not implying anything,” Keenan said, “I’m just pointing out the fact that the Labor candidate in Cowan opposes what we’ve done to ensure Australia is safe from a terror threat.”

This is a nonsense. If it were coming from an errant candidate, it would be bad enough. The fact it has come from the justice minister is appalling. Having made his claims, Keenan refused to debate Aly on radio. 

The episode is proof of how desperate this campaign has become, of the disingenuous rancour with which it is being fought. Alongside Labor’s overreach on Medicare privatisation and the Coalition’s scare on boats, it sits among the least edifying moments of this election. 

Aly has done more than most to combat terrorism in this country. In the face of overblown rhetoric, she has been a voice of reason. When she has criticised government policy, she has done so with well-reasoned calm. She brings to debate the nuance of someone working at the forefront of this issue.

But in politics, there is little space for this. She is more sophisticated than the issue is allowed to be. Politicians would sooner treat voters as idiots. They would sooner make Aly’s work the pea in a dog whistle.

The dishonesty from both major parties as they enter the final week of this election is terrible. The treatment of Aly is cruel and specious and, worst of all, unsurprising. Looking on, one can only despair.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2016 as "Rough injustice".

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