How to deal with terrorism
Sixteen people have been arrested in Sydney and Melbourne and charged with terrorism offences. While the individuals involved are legally entitled to a presumption of innocence, the police were right to act when faced with evidence suggesting a threat.
What’s important here is that the threat has been dealt with under criminal law, rather than through the use of arbitrary powers of secret detention, as proposed in the new anti-terror laws. Moreover, it appears that the offences created by the 2002 legislation are sufficient to encompass a wide range of terrorist activities. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine how the revival of the notion of sedition in the 1914 Crimes act could have proved useful in this, or any similar case.
It appears that the amendments passed by the Parliament last week were used in framing some of the charges, and certainly the general tenor of the changes seemed reasonable enough. On the other hand, it’s not clear that a major public announcement was a good idea. The fact that one of the suspects was armed and allegedly fired on police may have reflected advance warning. It’s not clear whether it would have been feasible to pass the amendments quietly, then proceed with the arrests and charges, but some of the police quoted (off-the-record) over the weekend seemed to think so. Still, these issues are largely academic (in the pejorative sense) now.
The new and amorphous features of the terrorist threat we now face may well create the need to define criminal offences more broadly before. But they shouldn’t be the basis for granting arbitrary powers to the secret services or the executive government, apparently based on nothing more than an ambit claim wishlist.