You can slumber blissfully tonight. If a terrorist is sleeping under the bed, the NSW Police still have the right to enter your premises without a search warrant. Or if your neighbour is a suspected religious fanatic, police can use your house for surveillance without telling you for up to six months. Last month, with barely any media coverage, public discussion or political debate, emergency police powers granted to the NSW police force were quietly extended for another three years. First enacted in 2002, in the wake of the September 11th bombings, the State Parliament has once again extended police powers. So used have we all become to living in a constant state of terror that no one bats an eye when the police are regularly granted extraordinary search and seizure powers. This time around, when the Terrorism (Police Powers) Amendment Bill 2010 was tabled by the Local Member for Marrickville Carmel Tebbut, not even the Greens bothered to oppose it.
When State Labor first rolled out their anti terrorist laws in 2002, we were told the laws were only temporary measures. At the time of their introduction, then State Attorney General Bob Debus assured the Parliament. “The powers set out in this Bill are not designed or intended to be used for general policing… These powers are extraordinary and have only been permitted with the strictest of safeguards.” We should have known better. Following the Cronulla race riots in 2005, extraordinary police powers were expanded from the authority to search for terrorists without a warrant to the power to impose martial law in select areas during times of potential unrest. Police were granted the right to lock down entire suburbs and promptly cordoned off Bondi Beach, searching vehicles without warrants, preventing cars from entering the eastern suburbs and entering buses seizing innocent commuters’ mobile phones in search of text messages from potential rioters. At the time the powers were invoked, no rioting had occurred. In 2007 in the lead up to APEC, police powers were extended over the northern half of the Central Business District with much of the City’s waterfront declared a no-go-zone. In 2009 the right to search for terrorists was extended to a raft of criminal activities. Assessing the new law’s implication at the time, Nicola McGarrity from the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law noted two problems with the newest police powers: “First, the power is not limited to searches of the premises of suspected criminals. It could be used to search innocent people’s homes or to gain covert access to adjoining premises… Second, and most importantly, the bill gives a greater power to the police to conduct covert searches in relation to ordinary criminal offences than they currently have in relation to terrorism cases.”
And so our civil liberties here in Sydney have been eroded step by step by step. Emergency police powers that were first introduced to combat a possible terrorist threat have now become common place. Last month’s decision to extend police powers yet again all but ensures that anti terrorism laws will remain enshrined in law in perpetuity. Unbridled police powers in the hands of opportunistic politicians or corrupt cops should cause concern for any citizen in a democratic society. Here in Sydney the police force has a history of criminal conduct, borne out by many a Royal Commission. Allowing police to enter premises without a judicially supervised warrant leaves open the very real threat that police may tamper with or plant evidence.
One month before the State’s anti terrorism laws were first enacted, State Premier Bob Carr told the ABC, “In a democracy you’ve got to entertain a healthy suspicion of security agencies and police powers.” Muhamed Haneef would no doubt endorse Carr’s hollow sentiment. In the dying days of John Howard’s Prime Ministership, the Indian born, Muslim Medical Doctor was detained under similar Federal laws without charge and was falsely accused of being a terrorism suspect after a distant cousin was involved in the London underground bombing. His visa was revoked and he was deported to Bangalore. A Federal Court overturned the Howard government’s actions. The change of Federal Governments has not led to a relaxing of draconian police powers at a state or national level. If anything, the Federal Labor government’s decision to back track on its promise to establish a Charter of Human Rights last year ensures that there are no judicial checks or balances against excessive police powers in our allegedly democratic society.