New laws allowing armed soldiers to patrol Australian streets in the wake of a terrorist attack will be passed in time for next year's Commonwealth games in Melbourne, Defense Minister Robert Hill said yesterday.
Hill said Australia's Constitution meant it was difficult to deploy the Australian Defense Force (ADF) on home soil to support police if a terrorist attack occurred.
He said legislation addressing the problem would be introduced to parliament before Christmas and should be in force in time for next March's Commonwealth Games.
"The idea is if there is an event that is beyond the capability of the civil authority, the police, to handle -- and a serious terrorist incident might fall within that category -- we want to be able to use the ADF flexibly and effectively to protect the lives of Australian people," Hill told Channel Nine television.
He refused to specify whether soldiers would have the same powers to seize, search and detain citizens that will be granted to police and intelligence agents under controversial anti-terror laws now before parliament.
Hill said the change in the laws was not prompted by any specific threat regarding the Commonwealth games.
Australia will station 1,200 trooops in Melbourne for the games, the largest security operation ever held in the country's second largest city.
A military tactical assault group supported by Black Hawk helicopters as well as chemical, biological and radiological response teams will form part of the security contingent.
Critics of the conservative government said the latest change to terror laws was unnecessary scaremongering designed to divert attention from unpopular workplace relations reforms introduced to parliament last week.
Greens senator Kerry Nettle said the government had known for a decade that the games would be held in Melbourne next year, so it was not convicing to argue that urgent legislative changes were now needed.
"When they're having trouble with their [workplace] laws, it's no surprise to hear more announcements about terror laws," she said.
Prime Minister John Howard last week recalled the Senate to pass an urgent amendment to counter-terrorism laws because he had credible information an attack was being planned. But the warning did not result in Australia's terrorist threat status being upgraded and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said yesterday that the law changes rushed through last Thursday's special Senate sitting may never result in an arrest.
"Arrests weren't necessarily expected because of the passage of the measure," he told Channel Ten television.