Terror laws threat to 'basic civil liberties'

The Age December 5 2005

By Michelle Grattan, Political Editor

THE Law Council of Australia has taken out full-page newspaper advertisements attacking John Howard's counter-terrorism legislation by accusing the Government of putting Australians' "most basic civil liberties under threat".

Its assault on the legislation, which will be passed this week, comes as Mr Howard defended the sedition section.

He said yesterday he was totally astonished at the attack on the sedition provisions — which has come partly from his own back bench — because they were similar to the present law.

The Law Council ad takes Mr Howard to task for not replying to a letter it sent to him last month that said the legal profession was united in its opposition to the anti-terrorism legislation.

It says: "The Government is using the threat of terrorism to introduce laws that put our most basic civil liberties under threat. The ramifications have the potential to be as terrifying as terrorism itself."

Questioned on the ABC about the sedition provisions, Mr Howard said the implication being touted was that these were new draconian laws. But, as the substance of them had been there for years without causing a problem, "what is all the fuss about?"

"If we're now attacking free speech, according to our critics, then we've been attacking free speech for 50 years, yet I haven't seen the evidence over the last 50 years. I haven't seen the restrictions on the cartoonists, I haven't seen the punitive action taken against columnists."

He said he "very passionately" supported a free press, regarding it as more important to maintaining liberty in Australia than a bill of rights. But Fairfax newspapers' spokesman Bruce Wolpe told Ten that sedition laws and a free press "cannot safely and peaceably co-exist". A sedition law was "hostile to the notion of a free press", he said.

A media delegation to Canberra last week had lost the fight to drop sedition from the bill, Mr Wolpe said, although Attorney-General Philip Ruddock had been persuaded by backbenchers to put in a stronger defence for publishing matters in good faith.