Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Give us the arguments
The government can’t be bothered trying to justify its anti-terrorism laws

Supplied by ABC News

The prime minister this morning was asked about his desire to introduce a new law making it illegal to possess instructional terrorist material. This was the exchange:

SABRA LANE: Why aren’t existing laws sufficient?

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, they just aren’t. There's not the, you need, you also need very clear, clear laws. It’s, it’s important to make sure that you give the police a very clear offence that makes, so that there’s no ambiguity or grey area.

It sounds depressingly like Donald Trump, doesn’t it? That’s from the official ABC transcript by the way, and if you still can’t quite believe our prime minister would give an answer like that, you can listen yourself, from about the 5.30 mark.

The interviewer gave Turnbull another chance, asking him, “Is this designed to target people who have manuals but not yet the equipment or the know-how perhaps?” Turnbull said she was correct, and this time gave three reasons for the law. The first was that those recently arrested in Sydney for plotting to blow up an Etihad plane had received instructions from the Middle East. Well, OK, but given the alleged plotters were arrested and the plot disrupted, this isn’t a convincing argument for new laws, is it? Then he said there was no legitimate justification for having such materials, except, as Bernard Keane points out today [$], there is: for example, academics study such material. Finally, he said that, “if you go up and ask somebody in the street”, they would agree with him. This is a terrible, terrible way to approach legislating what is an incredibly complex area that requires a nuanced approach to balancing rights and freedoms.

All that said, the PM may well be right in proposing the legislation. Laura Tingle explains [$] the reasoning: “The advice to the government is that the offence could give law enforcement agencies the ability to respond to behaviour and activity at the lower end of the risk spectrum, where a person is in possession of instructional terrorist material, but has not necessarily developed the capability or intent to commit a terrorist act.”

The first point here, the more minor political one, is that conforming to a pattern of old, the prime minister turned up to an interview poorly briefed, or at least underprepared. If journalists can avail themselves of the advice given to the government, surely the prime minister can too. It’s not even the first time this has happened on a cyber-security announcement – see the notorious press conference in July in which the PM declared the laws of Australia trumped the laws of mathematics. That entire press conference was also woolly and full of non-answers, and this from a former communications minister.

The much larger problem is that, as a nation, we seem to have stopped caring about terrorism laws. Do whatever you need to do, we shrug, as the government takes from us another of our civil liberties. And the even bigger problem is that the government knows it.

I’m no libertarian, and I’m not particularly vociferous on this specific issue. I accept that governments need to act to keep us safe. I feel this viscerally, having been in Sydney during the Lindt Café siege, and in both Paris and London during various attacks. I also accept that technology is rapidly changing, and that the methods of terrorists are therefore rapidly changing. Of course our intelligence agencies and law enforcement need to shift with them.

Which is a long way of saying I’m entirely open to hearing arguments on these matters. It’s just that our government doesn’t seem to want to make them – not in detail, not with the nuance we are owed.  

You might think I’m cherry-picking with the above example, and it’s true that Turnbull was more fluent in the rest of the interview. But it’s also true that most of what he said was vague and broadly expressed. Asked about why there should be a 14-day period in which terrorism suspects could be held without charge, the PM said it was “based on experience”, that there was “no place for set-and-forget”, that “we learn from every incident”, that “we’re always fine-tuning and improving our national security laws” and that “our primary, overwhelming responsibility is to keep Australians safe”.  He also mentioned the disruption of the alleged plane plot, but without a single detail. In other words, his entire answer could have been used to defend any terrorism law at all. (Honestly, you can try this exercise yourself – depressingly, it works.) 

We are talking about some large changes, including the wide use and expansion of a national facial recognition system.

The balance between freedoms and security is one of the most important a society will strike. Both elements firmly shape the type of country we all get to live in. In the past 15 years we – both the media and the citizenry – have become far too accepting of incursions on our freedom. Accept them, by all means, but only after stringent challenge and examination. And so our politicians have become far too blithe in making such changes, knowing that they will barely raise a sound. The changes themselves say a lot about our country, but so too does the way they come about.

In other news


Usurped by chaos

A creative’s mea culpa? An allegory for environmental devastation? Either way, Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ is an exhausting film

Shane Danielsen

Nothing in Darren Aronofsky’s cinema signals either the virtues of restraint or the civilising influence of what’s commonly judged ‘good taste’. He’s a maximalist, strident and occasionally gauche in his methods, and when this works – the grinding final act of Requiem for a Dream, the panicky, spiralling hallucination of Black Swan – it makes for exhilarating, if exhausting, viewing. When it doesn’t, you get loopy, metaphysical head-scratchers like The Fountain, solemn misfires like Noah, or his latest, the gonzo whatchamacallit known as mother!.”read on


The possibilities of flux at the TarraWarra International

Five Australian and international artists engage with history, impermanence and decay

Quentin Sprague

“At TarraWarra, audiences can see a number of major works, including the newly commissioned Black Thread (2016–2017). In it, Didem Erk collects a group of second-hand books once censored in Australia and performs upon them a compulsive act: carefully sewing a black thread through each word, page by page and book by book. As in a suite of accompanying video works, Erk deploys her ideas in a heavy poetic register: the installation is dramatically lit, theatrical in effect.”READ ON

‘Artists in Conversation’

Readers in Victoria can register for free tickets to artist conversations as part of Melbourne Festival, led by the editorial team of The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

The conversations will feature Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from the festival program, to discuss their work and its place in the world. The conversations will take place at the Forum Theatre on Saturdays from 12.30 pm.

To register, simply click any of the three names below and enter your details in the form provided. Tickets will be confirmed by 5 pm on Thursday, 5 October. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

Saturday, 7 October – An Engaged Audience

Hosted by Erik Jensen, editor of The Saturday Paper, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Please, Continue and Game of Leaders.

Saturday, 14 October – Across Platforms

Hosted by Martin McKenzie-Murray, chief correspondent of The Saturday Paper, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Tree of Codes and A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol.

Saturday, October 21 – A Chronicle of Life

Hosted by Nick Feik, editor of the Monthly, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Germinal and EVER.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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