Sat, Nov 19, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Going too far?

There is unrest in Australia over new laws aimed at countering 'sedition'

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE OBSERVER , CANBERRA

A counter terrorism law about to be passed by Parliament in Australia, has run into unexpected trouble.

Buried within its popular measures to give the authorities clearer and stronger powers to detain or investigate suspected terrorists were new definitions of the crime of "sedition".

Most Australians don't even know what the word means, according to public opinion surveys. With the recent arrest and charging of dozens of persons alleged to have been planning terrorist attacks on a nuclear reactor in Sydney, and unspecified targets in Melbourne, it took time for the "fine print" concerning sedition in the federal legislation to come into notice.

The new laws define sedition as urging disaffection with the sovereign, the constitution, the parliament, the government, or other heads of state or governments in a manner that incites violence between sections of society, among other things.

According to lawyers the provisions are so vague they could mean up to seven years jail for any Australian suggesting that Prime Minister John Howard, or any other world figure, deserved to be thrown out of office or given a kick up the behind.

And while the government vehemently denies this could happen, it is refusing to modify the "sedition" provisions of the bill to clarify its application and guarantee freedom to criticize or even satirize political figures.

Sydney lawyer, Ian Barker, said these offences "can be committed by recklessness."

"We are soon going to have a lot of laws telling us how to behave towards our government, our constitution and our country," he said.

"Urging disaffection against the government seems to be what many ordinary people often do, born of sheer frustration. The problem is the crime [of sedition] is all about words and the construction of words," he said.

"It is becoming increasingly dangerous to be honest and direct in the use of words," he continued.

In fact, ordinary Australians supporting the establishment of a republic in place of a constitutional monarchy in which the Queen of England is the head of state are technically committing sedition, as are those who often describe the heir to her throne, Prince Charles, in terms implying he is unstable, eccentric or unsuited to public office.

In briefings to the media, government members have insisted that the target of the sedition clauses is extremist groups promoting jihad or a range of specific or more general violent acts against society.

Yet the vagueness of the provisions has caused alarm even among government members, many of whom are calling for changes, while the leader of the Labor opposition party, Kim Beazley, said "I'm for jailing terrorists, not cartoonists and talk back radio hosts making hostile political points."

Others argue the laws could be used to counter agitation against involvement in Iraq.

In 1950 the conservative Menzies government failed in a prosecution of an anti-American activist whose sedition was to utter the words "Not a man, not a ship, not a plane and not a gun for the aggressive imperialised war in Korea."

It is sentiment often echoed in today's protests against the Iraq conflict.

Another constitutional law authority, Laurence Maher, said sedition prosecutions had always degenerated into high farce because in the course of accurate court reports all of the dangerous seditious words had been published repeatedly and usually on page one of the country's newspapers in full and sometimes for days on end.

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