When does protection go too far?

This hasn’t been a good period for John Howard. Howard forgot a Tasmanian Liberal candidate’s name on air, and then the ridiculous upgrades to the government’s VIP aircraft were revealed: $100,000 worth of upgrades, including $9000 in silk wall panelling and $6200 in almond-coloured leather added to the ceiling (refits that were later dropped). The problem for Howard is that in a lead-up to a Federal election, with the government lagging behind in the polls, he can’t afford to seem weak. And that’s exactly what’s happening; these slips create doubt in people’s minds about Howard’s ability to do his job, not to mention his ability to relate to the Australian people.

So it didn’t surprise me in the slightest when the government decided to revoke Muhammad Haneef’s visa and detain him, despite his being granted bail by a magistrate. What’s the one issue that Howard has always perceived as his strength with voters? National security, particularly regarding terrorism. It won the Liberals the 2001 election after 9/11. And I’m sure this seemed like a simple decision; Haneef was granted bail, so detain him for his visa – they’ll stop an accused supporter of terrorism from getting back out on the streets, doing the public a service, and making Howard look strong again.

All very good in theory. Except in reality it’s an abysmal abuse of due process and the criminal justice system. What is the point of going through the process of charging Haneef and having him appear before the court if, when the government is given an outcome it doesn’t approve of, it simply detains Haneef in a different way? Supposedly we’re not happy with the treatment of David Hicks while he was at Guantánamo Bay, but in doing this, how is it not the same? It’s hypocritical for anyone who has criticised Guantánamo Bay in the past not to say that.

For me the issue is not whether Haneef is a terrorist. He has been charged with giving support to a terrorist organisation, yes, but he has not been convicted yet, and we won’t know until we’ve seen all the evidence. The issue rather is that the government has created a scenario where if Haneef is innocent, he will be deported and if he is guilty, he’ll be sent to prison. How is that democratic? How is that Australian?

All this is, of course, in the name of protecting Australians. Kevin Andrews says he’s in possession of information that warrants Haneef being placed in the Villawood detention centre. If that’s true, then Haneef should be charged with a higher offence. You can’t just say that because someone is dangerous, you’ll do whatever it takes to lock them away; you have to prove it. That’s what democracy is. And isn’t democracy why Howard keeps telling us we’re in Iraq?

It makes me wonder, when does the time come when you realise you have given away too many of your civil liberties, too much of what makes your society an open democracy, to be protected? Do you even realise it at all, or do you just look back with the distance of time and wonder what might have been? I don’t know. I don’t think we’re there yet. I hope not.

Perhaps the government really does have evidence on Haneef we’re not privy too. But it’s still walking a very fine line, and treading political mileage with it. The memories of 9/11, Bali and London have faded, replaced with fear; fear of attack, fear of the unknown, fear that’s being exploited. That’s our world now, a world where, as Hedley Thomas says, you can buy coffee for a Muslim and “have unwittingly supported a terrorist organisation”. But at least we know one thing: we know what the terms of the 2007 election will be now. And it’s up to us to decide if we’ll accept them.

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