“Very basically, democracy refers to a regime whereby political power is widespread, where power in some way rests with the people. Democracy, then, has something to do with political equality.” 1 That means, a democratic government allow the people to engage in its activities, maintain the separation of power as well as guarantee individuals liberties. Australia has been dedicated to its democratic system for more than a century. However, its democracy is now threatened by the hardening counter-terrorism policies, with 62 terrorism laws since the 9/11 attack. The most recent legal document on this issue is the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014 2. Those legislations do significant damage to the core value of democracy.
First of all, the lack of information being released to the public makes the administration unaccountable. Atifete Jahjaga said: “Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation”. National security, particularly counter-terrorism activities take up a huge percentage of the state budget. “The 2014-15 budget estimates allocate more than $4 billion a year to public order and safety. Since the budget, counter-terrorism has received an extra $630 million over four years, including almost $200 million for ASIO” 3. Apparently, this huge amount of tax paid by citizens means that those activities are supposed to be more transparent to the public, with the media acting as a watchdog to scrutinize into the government’s performance and keep the public informed. However, the new bill charges a journalist a five-year jail term for disclosing information about a SIO (Special Intelligence Operation), and a ten-year jail for jeopardising the operation. Journalists are to phone the ASIO media hotline to ask for permission to report about an event or a person that comes to their attention. In addition, the government refuses to provide the public with information about crucial anti-terrorism operations because of national security reasons. All of those restrictions contribute to the public’s indifference with political movements and prevent them from exercising the political power that they are granted in a democracy.
Secondly, the counter-terrorism laws undermine the separation of power by reducing the role of the judiciary. The separation of power is the core concept of democracy, with each of the three branches: the executive, the judiciary and the legislature working as a power control and balance on each other, in order to prevent abuse of power and safeguard freedom for all. Nevertheless, under the anti-terrorism laws, the judicial branch has lost its importance. The Foreign Fighters Bill is criticized for the rushing law process, allowing innocent Australians to be detained without warrant, charge and access to legal advice. In addition, under the new Foreign Fighter Bill, a suspect can be detained for four hours in secret, without the rights to contact any family members or legal representatives. In this case, he does not have rights to remain silent, raising public concern about the possibilities of the police or ASIO officers to put pressure on the detainee or overuse their power to conduct coercive questioning. This type of power should never appear in a democratic government no matter how threatening the situation is. As said in the submission of the Australian Lawyers Alliance: “Revolutions have been fought for rights of access to an independent judiciary by free men and women. We should not lightly or willingly surrender rights which were once fought so hard for in a few moments of fear” 4
Last but not least, the terrorism bill diminishes…