Friday Filing: The Cost of Being Afeared

What price are we prepared to pay in order to be protected from those things that frighten us? What are we prepared to give up in order to feel ‘safe’ in a world that is increasingly portrayed as being unsafe?

I have found myself pondering these questions in recent as we, the Australian citizenry, have been told that there is a need for greater powers to be given to various law enforcement and security agencies within our country, told by our political leaders at all levels that there is something out there of which we should be afraid and from which we can be protected by the measures they are proposing. These proposals, which sound innocuous, are in reality very serious developments in a liberal democracy such as the Commonwealth of Australia, and I find it particularly concerning that both major sides of the political divide seem to be of one mind in this regard. These developments, if you are to believe the public discourse, are necessary for Australia’s national security and to protect Australians from the threat of terrorism, and other things that Australians should be afraid of.

That both major sides of the political divide adopt a similar approach to this issue of national security and the safety of Australians shouldn’t come as a surprise though. As one commentator wryly observed, when it comes to “The creeping (at-times galloping) extension of security laws has been one of the few areas of bipartisanship in an age of hyper-partisanship”.

In recent days two major national security measures have been announced. The first and least troubling is the linking of various databases containing photographic identification of Australians already held by state and federal agencies to provide greater ability for law enforcement and security agencies to confirm the identification of individuals or, through the use of facial recognition technology, to obtain the identification of an unknown individual. We have been promised that this technology will only be used in the case of serious crime or national security matters. This development is the least troubling because this course of action already happens, just not in an all but instant manner. There are delays because the various databases of drivers licence information, passport information and so on are not electronically linked. It is this delay that is hoped to be addressed by the proposal that has been given the green light by governments at federal and state levels.

The concern with this particular proposal, from my perspective at least, is that expert commentators have already indicated that it wouldn’t be too difficult to use the combination of the linked databases, facial recognition technology and various surveillance technologies to move to a real-time monitoring system. I can almost hear the arguments now. “We have the technology already, and this (insert next step here) is just the next logical step to provide law enforcement and security agencies with the tools they need to protect Australia and Australians better than they do now”. Very soon the expectation that Australians have of being able to walk in public spaces, to go about their legitimate and lawful pursuits, without unnecessary monitoring by government agencies will be a thing of the past. And while there is no expectation of privacy in a public space, there is also an expectation that ordinary citizens won’t be monitored in a public space without just cause. That expectation, however, seems doomed to be sacrificed on the altar of national security.

The second, and far more troubling, proposal is the introduction of a national consistency of the ability for suspects in terror-related events to be held and questioned prior to be charged with a criminal offence or released. At the moment there is no consistency, with various jurisdictions around Australia providing different regimes. The State of New South Wales has the harshest regime, permitting suspects to be detained and questioned for up to fourteen days without charge. This, unsurprisingly, was the basis of the suggested national consistency proposed by the federal government and which seems to have won the support of the various state and territory jurisdictions. There will be safeguards, of course, with courts being required to authorise such detention and questioning, but the mere suggestion of extending the period during which a suspect can be detained for questioning prior to being charged with a criminal offence or released is something worthy of concern.

The reality should be, in a liberal democracy like the Commonwealth of Australia, that the use of detention without charge should be rare and for the barest minimal time required. Law enforcement and security agencies argue that in terror-related events, the standard time period allowed is not sufficient for them to undertake their task of investigation. I’m afraid that kind of argument doesn’t sit well with me, largely because in criminal matters – and terror-related events are by definition criminal matters – the onus of building and proving a case must be laid in the hands of the state. And it should be difficult. It should be hard. We are talking here about the potential deprivation of something that in a liberal democracy is a fundamental freedom: the right to liberty and to not be exposed to the coercive power of the state unnecessarily.

The proposals that have been put forward this week are and must be concerning. Yes, Australians have a right to feel safe as they go about their lawful and legitimate pursuits. Yet that right to ‘feel safe’ must always be weighed against the right of Australians to liberty. It will always be a fragile balancing act, yet we can be easily convinced to surrender our right to liberty in order to enhance our right to ‘feel safe’. Indeed that has been the approach of many political figures this week: “Most Australians won’t mind giving up some of their civil liberties in order to be safer” or words to that effect have been spoken often in recent days.

And it’s true. Australians do want to be safe and secure in their own country and communities.

But at what cost?